(from The Refuge Box)
Slanting over the Sneuk, over
Goswick, that sky-writing, ominous, ancient
Far-away, frightening, almost
Legible. Whose hand, whose voice
Whispers over vast distances, ice
Creaking in it, snow?
No one. But for miles at the tide’s edge, geese –
Dark straggles of them, raise
Oaths, hymns, gutturals; and Fenham,
Stirring in its sleep,
In its own rank, spicy smells, its dribbles,
Its ooze, its salt-juices, its tidal creaks,
Opens itself to the sky, to the world, absorbs
Streams, strings of cells pouring
Down from nowhere into one dark body –
A rabble, a squabble, a whole hullabaloo
Trying to make sense of its singleness, an orchestra
Tuning its thousand primitive instruments,
Half bagpipe, half trumpet.
From: No Space But Their Own (Grey Hen Press 2010)
POEM OF THE MONTH ARCHIVE
Dustless millstones mark the path
to the museum.
Ploughshares gleam in welcome,
clart and clay a murky memory.
Strange wooden implements
with sweat-smoothed handles
lean indolent against the wall
like teenagers on a Saturday night.
We gaze in awe at butterchurns,
Tilley lamps and washboards.
Then, draped across a chair,
a pair of white cotton drawers
to Mrs Campbell of Boghead.
She stitched them herself.
Notice the fine needlework.
We notice. And notice too
displayed in sepia, Mrs Campbell
a proud woman, thankfully unaware.
Remind me, you say, to put it in my will.
‘All my knickers to be burned’.
From: Get Me Out of Here! (Grey Hen Press 2011)
April: Early Evening
It was that moment of hush.
The rain had stopped at last
And everything was full to the brim,
Song-soaked, ready to begin.
The apple tree leant across the lawn,
Rested its elbow on a table of air.
Lupins looked up.The new violas
Settled down in their pots. Midges
Went dizzy with joy. And I, behind
The kitchen window, knew it unwise
To interrupt, but couldn’t resist
A sudden, urgent need for chives.
From: Transitions (Grey Hen Press 2014)
Somewhere in my mind, at my shoulder
he’s still there; that pause he takes
on the edge of a rocky path
forcing itself up the grim slap
of a wintry mountain.
His jacket’s too big, woollen,
twenty years out of fashion
a man’s jacket – bleached grey
like the sky and the low clouds.
He’s going to be tall, but his body
still has that soft outline,
that tender plumpness
boys have – just before they grow.
His mother climbs ahead of him
holding tight to a little one.
It’s sleeting on their bundled lives.
He stops, looks back at what’s below
whatever is left. Even from this distance
of camera lens – and the miles between –
I can see, more clearly than I’d choose,
he hates that he is crying.
From: Songs for the Unsung (Grey Hen Press 2018)
Enid and the Peas
Miss Lydia, shaken by important company,
ran all urgent down the back stairs to ask
anyone too low to count the right way to eat peas.
Enid had waited by enough dull tables to know.
No, Enid said, don’t prong them individually.
You use your knife to squash them to your fork
held hump side up, not like a shovel. Take care
not to hold your knife as if it was a pen.
So rare was this moment of knowing better
than her betters, Enid would never tell
Miss Lydia the real right way to eat peas:
in fields, thumbed from pod to palm, licked up.
From: Vaster Than Empires (Grey Hen Press 2018)
Tiny shell, pearly as a milk tooth, why
did I choose you to put in my pocket?
You might be the eye of all storms.
You might orchestrate clouds,
the drift of sand, or perhaps
the oyster catchers’ red beaks
prodding and probing the shoreline.
The drapery of seaweed over the rocks.
Your hollow ear might contain
sounds spiraled through Time,
some still burning and blinded
with the origin of here.
You understand Moonspeak,
commune with the sun.
Today, your dark lid is closed
although I know you still see.
The beach wants to gather around you,
waits to hear wise from your lips.
Little Oracle, you’ve reached out,
touched me. It’s your pocket I’m in.
From: Running Before the Wind (Grey Hen Press 2013)
It is too beautiful to eat.
Knife crumbles it from gold to dark.
Our keenest edge cannot stay sharp
while in our walls, which seemed so strong,
damp murmurs with the evening sleet.
I wonder if I live too long
but then I taste the honeycomb,
its waxen white upon my teeth,
its liquid sun which hides beneath.
Small deities, of wind or moon,
behold me. In my shabby room
I am a god. I lick the spoon.
From: The Price of Gold (Grey Hen Press 2012)
A shot – a bolt of brilliance not
from low green willows
by the minnowed shallows
but through a loveless stretch
where straggling branches snag
crisp packets, empty cartons, Safeway bags
and the rusting bars of trolleys trawl grey waters.
His back – just glimpsed – a snatch of
other skies. Bright lapis lazuli
fresh from the artist’s slab of porphyry.
Ultramarine – blue from beyond my sea –
lent wings by some exotic deity
who stole the glow from summer orange groves
to fire the breast.
From: No Space But Their Own (Grey Hen Press 2010)
I’m here to listen, he says
and smoothes the space between us.
Unlistening he runs
his polished measure over me,
pumps arms, pivots hands,
rotates wrists, commands eye swivels,
beams at the snake spirals he has me draw.
Better than mine, he lies.
Content, he offers me his arm,
and offers too his malediction:
Things will get worse!
Cleanly he chops through hope
then slivers and slices it dead,
conveys with oiled assurance
how others have imagined improvement
only to be proved wrong
for like a slow-moving escalator
the disease, relentless,
I query his catechism of certainty.
His suit grows darker, his smile
wider as it cracks around the mouth.
From: Get Me Out of Here! (Grey Hen press 2011)
Scarborough: In Memory of Anne
Sooner or later it seems, each northern poet
pays tribute and tries their Brontë poem.
We thank Heaven for antibiotics,
yet feel the prick of jealousy, tragic death
being a tourist route to fame.
Even the father’s grief is commercial,
worth a trip round some church
where once he blessed a child.
Anne we forget. Branwell with his booze
better suits our uneasy time.
Yet on this cliff, with sea and town beneath
it is Anne I think of, the gentle one.
She came here seeking health, and lies in death
apart, as in life. On this wall a plaque
names her grave. That is all.
A late thrush sings; waves whiten sand.
Few come, no one sells souvenirs.
Buried hurriedly and alone
Anne is the legend’s footnote.
But she loved her moors too,
hated governessing, burnt with the same fire,
if less intensely. To die so far from home
would be cruel enough; to be eclipsed
by her sisters, a bitter death indeed.
From: A Source of Strange Delight: poems about the Brontës (Grey Hen Press 2011)
Beady-eyed wide-boy, cheerful polymath
Who’s never quite as good at anything
As anybody else. Oh, he can fly
But not as the swift flies, not as the kestrel.
He gets there, though, after his own fashion,
And he can swim, but not as the swan swims.
Even his scavenging is overshadowed
By that of gulls, his small predations by
The lordly heron. His are little skills
Thoughtlessly exhibited ad infinitum
In his own idiosyncratic world.
I asked him once, “Mallard, my feathered friend,
What do you do, exactly? What are you for?”
His reply was a wink and a wet shrug;
“Oh, you know, Squire – bit of this, bit of that;
Bit of ducking and diving. Grab what’s going.
Know what I mean, Squire, eh? Know what I mean?”
From: No Space But Their Own (Grey Hen Press 2010)
And none says what is right or beautiful
Dementia rifles the phone book.
We think it is about fading away,
but it is the earth draws closer,
come to embrace the living,
disencumber them of bills and passbooks.
Travelling light, the familiar one
leaves in the uncalled taxi
and the mocking one appears,
says I don’t know you.
With clinical care, with slow anger
we care for the mummy
dumped on the doorstop.
Desire squeezed out like a lemon,
as we knew it should but could not.
A hand is a hand is a hand:
maybe earth is the name of a dance.
Leastways, the moon
never cared to know my ID.
Pleasance, art teacher, peace activist,
silent, cared for, recognising nothing
but her wildflowers picked in a Devon field.
I think what ruts I run in. What flowers I know.
From: Cracking On (Grey Hen Press 2009)
(after a picture by Paula Rego)
Three bags full I ordered.
Got the number from the Yellow Pages—
‘Black Sheep Enterprises’. He sounded
ever so nice on the phone.
When could he deliver? I said
the afternoon’d be fine.
Well I thought it was the devil:
black horns coiled like ammonites.
But there was something about him.
I stashed the wool away right quick,
let my red face cool.
And now my fingers work
a living fleece, one cloven foot
lost in the folds of my full skirt.
My little one is coming down the lane.
His days of nursery rhymes are numbered.
From: A Twist of Malice (Grey Hen Press 2008)
This is where land
forgets to be land,
sea loses track
of being the sea,
sky lets go
of horizon after horizon
Here’s a beach
so far from its harbour
are moored a mile inland
and you have to take a train
This is where water
keeps unmaking its mind –
fresh, salt? –
flitting from creek to pool,
from estuary loop to ebbing reach,
and where the pinewoods
are a law unto themselves,
roots holding the soil in thrall,
lifting sky and cloud so high
they have nowhere else to go but dusk…
From: Running Before the Wind (Grey Hen Press 2013)
The Extra Brontë
I can’t imagine writing
at the same table as my sisters,
night after day after night;
that claustrophobia of ink,
words migrating around
the corners of that mahogany.
Osmosis would be a given,
that fire in the eye.
And whose fine story
would I have stolen,
while I waited
for my quill to quicken.
From: A Source of Strange Delight (Grey Hen Press 2011)
Cure for Bee Stings
Great Aunt Mollie lived
as her mother had
in a cabin of chestnut logs
with a roof of oak shingles.
Her bedstead was corded with ropes,
a mattress stuffed with rye straw.
She made soap of hogfat
and hickory ashes cooked in a kettle.
She had five cures for bee stings.
Slightly moist sugar cube
applied to welt,
a paste of baking soda,
slices of raw onion,
poultice of summer savoury,
She prepared the hive for winter:
black tar paper wrapped round
the wood at the base to deter mice.
Her tools were a lantern, a knife
and a syrup can.
Wild honeycombs hung from her rafters,
pointed at the base, rounded on top,
the bees huddled in the centre combs
to keep warm.
Great Uncle Edward preferred
a paste of baking soda, vinegar
and water or tobacco juice or
his home-made toothpaste.
I liked a copper penny taped
to the wound as I could spend it after.
Edward was away trading beaver pelt,
Mollie in the middle of making cornbread
when the stroke took her.
She’d just gathered a jar
of tiny wood asters.
and we forced the bees
out of their hive
so they could aid
the ascent of her soul.
From: The Price of Gold (Grey Hen Press 2012)
Auto da fé
One must feel a certain pity for the cones:
under the tarmac stand the skeletons.
The conical red of the penitents’ hoods
is all that shows, at the edge of the road,
of heretics in their flame-patterned cloaks
lining the highways in a scarlet snake.
Motorists in their cars and coaches
swear at the immolated wretches;
venting their spleen, they rant and curse
as they crawl in the heat past the long procession
of fugitives from the Inquisition,
deafened by taunting, shouts and jeers.
Ignoring the plight of the damned beneath,
crazed followers of the new true faith
rev their engines in desperation,
thickening the air with foul emissions.
Under the bitumen of car-choked summer
the fires of hell make the heat haze shimmer.
From Get me Out of Here! (Grey Hen Press 2011)
That’s me. Little jackpot, dash
of a gentle rainbow. Unexpected.
I almost look exotic, yet I’m so small
I can fit inside a hedge, hide
behind a large lime leaf. You might not see
me, as you tramp through the woods
with your strange songs of creaking words,
your loud drinks and rustling bags of food.
I am still here. Quick as a twitch,
wild genie of the countryside’s
green bottle. Free as all flying creatures,
skimming the sky with my rose petal belly.
Scooping up air with my monochrome wings
as if I were gathering to me
all of the summer. Keeping alive the story
of the slow dance of the seasons.
A jewellery box of sparkling memories
for those who treasure such things.
From No Space But Their Own (Grey Hen Press 2010)
Seven weeks today. A July wind
is tousling the trees, rumpling the garden.
I have written five letters, washed the sheets.
A mistake somewhere – I’ve not finished
the crossword. Sit with the sounds of Sunday.
Thrashing leaves. Cows. Planes. My own breath.
All week the air has burnt: it is breath
from a lion’s mouth. No stir of wind
to brush the cheeks of the sixth Sunday:
silence quivers in the house, and the garden
shrivels, as if the season’s finished.
I sort bed linen. There are too many sheets.
A week leafed with letters. I scan these sheets
about you, half alert to hear your breath
until the words remind me that it’s finished.
So sorry to hear. Rain in the wind
hasn’t enough weight to nourish the garden.
Bells clang dryly. It is the fifth Sunday.
I wake in your presence the fourth Sunday –
not lying passive between your sheets
but laughing, striding in the summer garden
your mouth full of kisses, and your breath
sweeter and stronger than the June wind.
Why did I wake before the dream was finished?
Ready to go. I’ve nothing left unfinished
you told me once. But now beside a Sunday
river I want you here to watch the wind
curving sails, to feel the hauled sheets
as the boats put about, to taste the breath
of summer gusting down from every garden.
The second week I meet you in the garden
sitting under the oak where you once finished
fixing the swing-seat; not out of breath
but quiet and absorbed, reading the Sunday
papers, glancing up, rustling the sheets,
pinning one down that flutters in the wind.
I look out at the garden that first Sunday
when everything is finished. I smooth the sheets
and listen for your breath. There is only the wind.
From Cracking On (Grey Hen Press 2009)
I wake just before five.
It is still dark – turn on the light,
go to the bathroom. On the way
I notice something brown next to the sink.
Ugh! A surprising mixture
of disgust, fear, and indignation rises.
What is it doing in my territory?
Let it go back where it belongs!
Five minutes later I look at it again.
It is not slimy, not even ugly,
its milk-chocolately body covered
by skin with regular parallel ridges,
the front third lifted up; I feel –
although I can detect no features –
it’s giving me a friendly, tentative grin
beneath those horns. This is imagination
gone too far.
Disgust has gone. Nevertheless
as I go back to bed, I have made up my mind:
tonight I must make sure
the plug sits firmly in its hole.
When I get up at seven, it has gone.
From A Twist of Malice (Grey Hen Press 2008)
A long distance from anywhere
you might remember. The last trees
were a while back. The hedges
sit tight, leaning inland. The air starts
to stick to your tongue and the map
reaches a final name.
There isn’t very much to do, although
if you don’t park with your back to the sea
you can glimpse Scotland when the cloud lifts,
so someone’s troubled to work
on the notice until it advises
Please d i e carefully. Jack’s Surf Bar
is where they discuss the perfect
wave. There was a perfect wave
once, and at Jack’s
it goes on rolling, Pacific Blue,
crested and glassy, chariot of heroes.
Bingo was last Thursday. There is the Ship
and the Grapes. Before long, the surly sea
that is fed dropped chips and ice cream
will prowl and starve, the Leisure Centre have
more leisure that it can afford
and if you crunch out over the shingle
you can tell that the earth is flat.
Away down the coast, white masts
are fulling the salty air.
A solitary cormorant
tautens his line of flight
unerring over the keen waterchop,
fastening southerly to northerly,
one hard cusp of distance to another.
Two dogs with experienced grey muzzles
are laughing over something.
This is the place for men
and miniature men, for talk
of tides catches records goals. The women
sit. Older sitters have good big teeth,
and heads grown white like the blackheaded gulls
resigned to August.
(You don’t expect a lad like the one down there,
the blue puffajacket, to be sitting alone,
his head bowed so low you might wonder,
but no it’s all right, clamped
to his ear there’s a mobile phone.)
This is a place to practice
the fine skills of waiting,
for a call, an encounter, a tug
on the line, for better luck: where almost
any pebble could turn out,
given an eye to discern it,
a wrist to flick it one step further
than the edge of the known ledged
brown world, to be a champion skipper,
could abandon once and for all the kingdom
of tearooms and a ragwort sun.
M R Peacocke
from Running Before the Wind: Poems About the Sea (Grey Hen Press 2013)
The bees came one summer, left you
combs full of honey you poured
in six wide necked jars and kept
in the cool of your cellar.
You shaded your eyes to the afternoon glare
as if you might see their black swarm
return; as if they might come
over the still burning fields,
to tell you their stories of healing
and distance, of darkness
and work, and you’d tell them back;
to tell you the sun slipped down in the sea
but yours had already slipped from its moorings;
to tell you your lavender, mullein, blood red
of the poppies; all the strong scents,
sealed in the jars you’ve not opened yet.
This food doesn’t spoil. Its sweetness intensifies
over the years. See how its pale gold
gleams from the shelf; how the hive
still seethes with a secret intelligence
from The Price of Gold (Grey Hen Press 2012)
Press 6 to lose the will to live
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from Get Me Out of Here! (Grey Hen Press 2011)
Swimming with Jane
Thirty wooden chairs revert to orchard.
I watch the bent heads – I’ve been here before.
Moon-shadows. Night-scents: sweetbriar,
southernwood. Grass slithers under thin shoes.
A huge moth goes humming by. The cigar
draws them on.
It is weeks since they met the girl, hunched
over a book, hiding from the bully:
my flesh shrank when he came near.
Stunted, trembling, intransigent,
she locks them in to her story. I’ve seen them
thrill at the blow,
trickle of blood – unjust! unjust! –
pulsing darkness of the Red Room.
They’ve lived through the icy dormitory,
burnt porridge, epidemics, grief,
the hoarse laugh in the third storey:
is what they’ve been waiting for, have run back
from swimming to hear, skirts bunched,
hair wisp-tendrilled with damp, shirred
socks: the words they’ve all seen rising
up the page – Marry me – and a voice among the chairs
breathes oh yes.
from A Source of Strange Delight (Grey Hen Press 2011)
The Blackbird Sings
Rain has rinsed all gloom
from the sky. The garden
breathes and stretches.
The lawn preens itself.
Skeins of green swirl up
into a gold-tipped conifer.
The sun, which was not
drowned, consents to perform
its old trick with the light.
House, tree, grass, are
gilded, enchanted, spelled
under a net of song.
from No Space But Their Own (Grey Hen Press 2010)
In a Flash
You hand me a photograph, and in it,
your chin, with its five-o’clock shadow
is a foil to the tender cheek
of your first-born
But wait, it is only a moment since
you were the baby, lying on my bed,
staring curiously sideways,
as if getting to know the wallpaper,
or working out some plan.
You’ll notice how quickly it all happens.
The photos fly in and out of the albums
like snow, like melting snow.
From Cracking On (Grey Hen Press 2009) previously published in Private Pleasures (Bloodaxe 2007)
Donna La Morte
A weighty flutter overhead.
An owl comes out of the night
moves through darkness to settle.
Donna La Morte whirrs down trailing
feathers like shroud garments.
Turns, her beak becomes fleshy lips.
She speaks lies in a language
I don’t want to understand.
She holds up a mask to hide her skull.
A stiff white Venetian face,
almond spaces curved in gold.
Black holes in her head.
She is all brocade, lace, gauze
sequins and silver flowers.
She is all Carnival, insincere.
I attack her in silence.
From A Twist of Malice, Grey Hen Press 2008. First published as ‘Visitation’ Lunatic Moon, Gatehouse Press 2006.