Other Poems

If I were to make a world,
it would be like this,
with trees of coral
standing bare against
the new year’s sky,
and snow lying deep
around their feet.

The mountains, etched
with silver edges
and dark graphite gullies,
stand immense and implacable,
waiting for a new ice age
to grind them down
when the sun grows old.

Eagles circle in the rare
clear air and the moon
rises once again full,
as evening draws
its pure blue cloak
around the shoulders
of the dying day.

Loyal to a land
Of quiet virtues
Killed by lusting
Ambition and pride
In forgotten shames.

There’s no peace now
In soil made small
By smallness;
And in foreign fields
Flowers stir, embattled.

For Denis Murray

My little girl
Throws off her shadow
To dance down the road
With her bobbing bunches.

In a long, long line
I see herded children
Ripped from fathers,
Clinging to mothers

Starved and scared:
Irrepressible, one skips
To a kind of victory
That completes the defeat. 

The path wove through a forest
To a clearing
That offered no more clues.

Shadows dance with the ferns
And the crowding
Pines whisper to the breeze.

Forests once marched unopposed
Through fiefdoms haunted
By bears, and boars, and wolves,
And darker things given no names:
Every oak tree had a god.

For grind-hard centuries
Of hot-coursed blood,
Fervent hearts sought
Something bigger than gore-
Soaked petty kingdoms.

They stand now betrayed,
Sacrificed on a cold altar of myth:
Lies told to passionate
Fools cast adrift on a small island
Beset by storms.

An infectious
Darkness climbs
To heaven.

The screaming stench,
Piss, burnt rubber,
Rubbish dump,

Mingles hopeless
Blood-soaked dust

With poison drawn
To a lowering
Filth-stained sky.

A fungus grows
From the corpse
Of a horse.

The rain pours silver
From summits hidden
By a fallen sky

Advancing relentlessly
Through the breached
Defences of the valley.

Wisps of dancing-dragon
Cloud steam from the pines
Climbing the mountain ridge.

To the one
Who climbs the hill
Outside the petty town
To watch the sunset;

To the one
Leaving the cruel
Spectacle when others
Crowd in a flock;

To the one
Who, in a forest
Of outstretched right arms,
Folds his instead;

You are not alone.
I am with you,
This in your ear.

Look, stranger, on this island now...

Cowled seagulls lament
The ruins of Greyfriars
And its walled-in
Brutalism, decaying ugly;

In the pub a man
Tells impassive friends
Hitler gets a bad press,
And as I flee

A young boy swerves on a bike,
Drawing deeply on a cigarette
Dragged noisily into a bared chest
Browned by six-week sunshine;

At the bus stop, beside
Beggars rolling-their-own,
A drunk vomits between his feet,
And in the hot sticky night the gulls,

Mad with eternal man-lit day,
Ghost through dawn-hunted
Moonlight, and drift towards
Deep, dark seas.

The cathedral offers sanctuary
From the hot unenglish sun
Brazenly beating on the roof
And at the door;

I’m led up winding stone stairs,
Through ancient passageways
Hidden until revealed
By commonplace alchemy,

To the library, a hiding hole
For wizards, where monks
Guarded a treasury
Of bound-up words,

And where I hear
A Saxon scribe speaking clear
Through the cloistered protection
Of a thousand years.

His words collide in soft ripples
With the warnings of a mad
Soldier poet, and the choir
That first heard his voice.

I. Exile

Driven onward
By foul winds
Through lands
Forever foreign;

A stranger,
Grasping at faint
Shades of smiles

To find somewhere
To sink dark-whitened
Roots into neutral earth
Claimed by others.

II. Kinsale

The day started bright,
But the clouds gather
Shadows of green
That glide across the fields,

Caressing spring-laden trees
And leaping the hedges
In their stride.

They ripple the water
Where the bay
Meets the open sea
And dance among

Gulls and hooded crows
On the wind
They brought with them.

III. Old Head of Kinsale

Rocks swallowed by boiling waves,
Bedding planes
Pointing skyward,
The stern of a sinking ship.

The crash of the surf
And the mournful
Cries of kittiwakes

Batter the cliff-top flowers
As sunshine cracks
On the black stone
And lies shattered on the water.

IV. Dublin

In the church
In Rathmines
In the beginning
Was the word;

A candle flickers
On each side of the aisle
Beneath a silent dome.

Philistine pilgrims troop
Round Trinity,
Jostling in beer-barreled rooms

Above the Book of Kells,

Deriding its purpose
And denying the honour
Due to scribes.

V. Ha’penny Bridge

The Liffey flows cleaner
As time sluices away
Shames and sins
Inflicted and imposed.

Around the corner
I can almost hear
The guns of my grandparents;

But the toll
For this bridge
Is a coin
Long-since spent.

Trees cloak
The mountains’ shoulders,
Embracing me;

Fields roll green into blue,
Then gather grey
Where the peaks blend

With cloud and dissolve
Time into a past
And a future.

I shiver as shadow
Blows into the spring sky,
Bringing rain.

Nesting jackdaws collect twigs,
Silver necks and blue eyes
Gleaming in their gloss.

The Inn, mountain-clouded,
And the green-clear Danube
Flow together in milky separation

As Germany strains
At taut moorings
By the heart of Europe.

But a third river runs small,
Unnoticed through the gorge
It carved around the fortress.

Meadow flowers
Bow their heads
To the full moon;

A small girl plays
In defiance
Of the shadow
As the darkness
Gathers them
From the grass.

Waters spreading across valleys
From the Swale to the Danube
Bring leaves, green in springtime,
Glossy in the glancing sunlight,

Plant and name as enduring
As its lingering scent,
Unchanged by the long-shipped
Descendants of Vikings.

In the woodlands of Europe,
United by folk-memory
And the subtle stink
Of wild garlic,

Language and peoples
Bleed together
In the shared worship
Of forgotten gods.

The day ends,
Slowly toiling
Uphill, towards

A gold sky
The tired old sun
Just abandoned.

In the comfort
Of the darkness
I make notes,

Watching insights
Snatched for me,
Glimpses captured forever.

Snake-like I listen
With the strange
Tongue of my exile,

And my scribbled words
Overlap in patterns
I find hard to read.

Bavaria wears the sky as a flag,
White flecks woven with pale blue.
My daughter holds my hand
As we pass through the crowds,
Sometimes playfully slipping
My grasp, rehearsing.

In the tent a hairy leg
Stamps from bench to table
And through the fleshy frame
A woman gives me
A dark-eyed smile
Above her full bodice.

The waitress lends me a pen,
But I have to stand next to her,
Tethered by the attaching string.
She shows me her name,
Bettina etched on a brass broach
Pinned beside her breast.

Outside again the rain starts
With slow fat drops that coagulate
Into a hosing soaking deluge.
I hold the little girl in a tight embrace,
Pressed against the window
Of a ticket booth, protected

By a foot of overhang that keeps
The worst from her, but not
From the back of my cotton shirt.
Thunder cracks as lightning
Whips the Wies’n, and we cower,
Waiting for it to stop; waiting.

Later the long arms of fairground rides
Slip again into the evening; one way
The sky shades to white,
The other to an angry bar
Of Prussian blue. Flags hang
Limp in the dithering breeze.

I find my throat is sore:
I had tried to make myself heard
In a tent of raucous singing;
But now my croaking voice
Is too hoarse even
For bedtime stories.

I would lie
Beneath the hedge
That surrounded

My childhood
For long summers
Without school,

Learning how brown
Leaves enrich
A fruitcake soil

Layered with
The bones
Of my ancestors.

Now green leaves
Flinch as rain falls
To earth a continent deep.

A shortcut to the beach
Avoids the war memorial,
But the Portland stone
Can be glimpsed
Through the trees.

A bare-breasted man
Chases a toddler
Across the sand
While she pursues
Her stumbling legs:

They both laugh,
Knowing this is to be
The best thing
In the whole world;
And it’s over in a blink..

Passchendaele centenary,
31st July’17

I can remember my grandfather,
An old man running
Then leaping over
A garden wheelbarrow;

But his father is as remote to me
As Alfred or Athelstan,
Just a name whose bones
Nourished an unknown tree.

They came from deep
Generations, rooted forever
In a place older than England;
Yet strange undirected currents

Carried them through
Glories and shames
To a mastery
Of a hundred peoples.

I cannot rest in this land betrayed:
Darker earth awaits me
Over an unquiet sea,
In the shadow of mountains.

Every shade dances here,
In the trees marching
Towards the city,

In the grass lying thick,
in the hedges that hide
Lakes and statues,

In the undergrowth
Where birds rustle
With the restless

Ghosts of famine and Easter;
Every shade dances
On St Stephen’s Green.

Swifts weave in dogfights
With their projected shades,
Flitting between hop-poles
And crossing Maytime fields.

A dark background shadow
Defines a lasting scar,
A wound acknowledged,
Not allowed to fester or corrupt.

Here the poppies
And the cornflowers
Entwine with wild orchids
In the soft meadows.

The dark
disc of the moon
shines faintly

in a sea
of creased silk
painted by Velasquez.

Her life collapsed
To a last exquisite
Expansion of lungs

Drawing in a scent:
It led her through
The garden paths

Of youth and love
She would never
Tread again.

I might perhaps
Have dreamt her
Flower-perfumed sigh.

Margaret Howse 1925-2004

Red squirrels run
The length of the street
Without touching the ground,

And above the crow-
Topped trees a building
Shines in sunset gold.

Reflected hot windows
Screen the glinting people
Living part-lives exposed:

I know the colour
Of their underwear
But their voices are strangers.

I stand mute in my
Still purple shadow's
Deepening darkness.

Towards the Tiergarten
Monsters of green iron
Cast for emperors
Define streets lining
Spaces stubbornly preserved
From the weight
Of concrete and history;

Cloaked in brown
The hooded crows
Proclaim their difference
To English cousins
By reminding me
Of Ireland and Iraq.

The Broken Church’s
Lopped-off spire
Punctures time, compelling
My eye to rebuild it,
My hand to sink
Into the sandy surface
Of a shrapnel-pitted wall,

And, beneath the empty
Rose window, a calculation:
Where to stand
To survive the blast-flung
Spray of razor-blood-
Stained-glass death.

At Checkpoint Charlie
Students laugh in
Bright tourist sunshine,
Flashing their phones
And their smiles across
A shadow on the road
As they make friends & futures;

Where a grey division
Vomited overnight
A generation sinks
into dotage, and forgets
Building walls
Is an act of violence.

Hand in hand we walk
Where tumbled rocks
Meet Rhine-sifted silt
Generously dumped
To shore-up England.

I lead a child
Beneath chalk cliffs
To be told she’s taking
The path with her,
To find the way.

Crying gulls drive back
The fleeing tide
In complicated pulses
As the wind whispers sadly,
‘You’ll find no peace here’.

To Robert Frost & Edward Thomas

Prose you’d fight a war for:
From the right side of the lines
He invented my idea
of what I could be.

I’ve paddled with sticky feet
Through shallow lakes of blood
To see him standing bowed
By all his flaws and failings:

Firing off a machine gun
In bravura, but leaving
Before the deadly response;
And another shot,

A single one, making a final
Messy escape, and leaving
His children alone to deal
With the answering barrage.

In that dull land
of half-remembered
myths and glories

this is just
another emblem
on a beer glass,

the best pint
(and the cheapest)
in town.

But here they hold
this symbol close,
honouring a pure

young courage
that - loving life -
gave it,

hoping to wash
monstrous delusions
away with her blood.

On my
last night
I tell her
to be good.

I will,
she says,
I will be

Loft con-
Versions and ex-

Or white-

Rendered, sub-
Urban gardens
With tatty

Lawns and toys
By snatched-

Away children;
A still life.
Sadness and

Longing, with the

Of being in-
Side watching
The lid close.

The frosty sunset
Burns a livid hole
In the crushed
Silk sky.

We travel backwards
Past fields and woods
Fought over
In pursuit of peace

By every generation
Before my own:
We just surrendered
Without a fight.

Radiant mists draw
shadow curtains across
the undefined meeting
of mountains and sky.

Coots leave blazing wakes
as shards of sunlight
sparkle brilliant, fleeting
silver on the water.

Soft plumes of smoke
rise from cosy stoves
by the cold still lake’s
far distant shore.

England ends
in layers of azure
into silver
beside the golden sand,
fusing light,
sea and sky.

sit before their beach huts,
an inward-
gazing semi-
circle reddening at
the shoulders,

with burned backs
spurning the horizon,
playing in the wild surf.
Their kettle
starts to boil.