Trees

No respite for the trees:
like soldiers they stand, attending
to every kind of weather

It rushes roughly against their innocent bark
or touches their limbs seductively
in the deceptive dark

No hiding under tiles or blankets:
arms out, they are open to everything, even
the surprising blackness of the stars
and the winters of discontent

Down by the graveyard
the sky-cold water murmurs
against such injustice

but the sentry trees have no complaint:
they do not retreat
from the slashing heat of sudden summer
or the introspective moon

They do not jump for joy
or scream with pain, or
faint at the anger of lightning

Faithful in love, they continue to stand
hand in hand,
naked before the beggar, the killer and
Christ the King

This poem was written after observing the trees on Thetford Heath and a canal at Warwick.

Linn of Quoich

While you sleep, and the sun
creeps between branches,
shooting inquiring glances
into the deep, aching pool below the ravine,
a woman walks into the wilderness.

As thrown wood circles,
rejected by the snow-cold flood,
your blood drifts uncertain in the heat,
your bare feet, unknowing, touch
the ashes of a long-dead fire.

Greyness leaves its mark, but the rock
carries no sign of a body. When you move,
it is to open a door
behind which a devil lurks:
you examine the door closely
and decide on something cheaper.

A woman walks into the wilderness:
you do not see her go.
I watch the flow of the stream past abandoned doors,
and the way the sun makes shapes in the water
that could be fish
and the way the wood circles
and the woman walks.

There is a pain in my gut: I may die
under this helicopter sky.
The woman who walks into the wilderness
smiles at me.
I do not see how things could be
much better.

Drummer girl

The way the drummer girl moves her wrists
– those flashes of blue –
and the way she smiles,
thinking of something else,
remind me of you

She has a flair and a rhythm
that defies the sudden rain
but it is no big thing for her:
it is in her Scottish blood,
like a passion once felt,
never given away

She is frowning now
as she keeps the beat:
there are pictures in her head
of broken roads
and flooded houses

She hangs on the precipice
as you hang,
and I know there is a risk:
I may get trapped again
beneath those magic fingers
as the music ends

 

>> Written after being greeted by a pipe band in Ballater, a town recovering after being devastated by floods

Some small secret

Bleach and black water patch the hillside –
burnt heather beside the path,
which winds aimlessly away from the soldiers’ bridge
beneath which we sheltered

There are no fences here:
the real country keeps hold,
hiding its destinations

In a fold of the ridge
rare trees cluster like a mother’s arms
around some small secret,
and the breeze picks up

We come like curlews from a graveyard full of words,
but these moors have little to say:
though they have taken memories into their mouths,
they simply listen

We used to ford this stream easily:
now we drop a stone into the water but decide to wait,
catching our breath before
the steep climb back to the road

 

– a poem of the Highlands, specifically the wild country near Corgarff

 

Rievaulx Abbey

Yes, there is chanting here
behind the howl
of the occasional jet
and the child crying in the café

The cowled monks of Rievaulx
dance lightly between the stones,
making music as the rain stutters and dies

You touch them,
and they become real,
dragged forward in time
face down

Placed like a crown in this green valley,
the stones look hard
but melt at the fingertip,
memories trickling out

and we may not know
what to make of them,
these good infections
spreading, heading south

Prayers from the past
struggle against the stubborn forces of emptiness,
the black, dead, exploded skies

but still the chanting persists
as if it made a difference

knocking at heaven’s door,
waiting for the answer

False Bay

Water kills by volume
filling space, forcing out air,
extinguishing breath

but also by weight

and as I sit alone for a snatched moment
on beige bleached rocks
strung out like forgotten connections

and watch the False Bay breakers
heave and hurtle their way in

I see an infinite weight out there
thumping the table
like a beast aroused, flinging itself
translucent white, blue-green mirages,
driven from the south
irresistible

and I see how fragile the truth is
easy to drown
even easier to bury

 

> A poem from South Africa, ten years ago

 

Gethsemane

Below the hill
where garden olives blossom in the heat
and sleep comes easily to some
pain slides like sour oil around the rocks
kissing the soul
colouring the night

In the distance soldiers look for signs
on unfamiliar paths
walking into the dark

while one man fights for the future
taking the cup
holding back the angels

Baptised in the book

You sit in the light:
a breeze from the window touches your hair,
your face in shadow

You turn a page:
the tilt of your head changes –
you are almost smiling

You raise your fingers to your lips:
they pause for a moment
then return to the book

I know your eyes –
I do not have to see them:
the sky beyond the window is blue

You are baptised in the book:
I observe you
scientifically

You drink it all in:
your hair glows like stained glass
as the sun drifts across you

It is no accident:
you are anointed
by unknown forces

The created story
is in your hands,
turning to silver

 

After watching my wife reading by the window.

Grinlow Hill

Footprints in the snow give us away
as we climb through the overarching woods
and up to the temple
with ice on its steps

Like echoes, light rays bounce
off thin surfaces,
the scarred and sacred skin above the caverns
where jewels are stored

And there is no way of telling
what lies beneath –
what we are trampling on,
dreams or deep designs,
nightmares or living water

They wait to swallow us
but we fail to submit
tiptoeing too fast and carelessly
across crisp country,
giving no thought
to the treasure below

seeing only the view from the summit,
the naked tower so easily destroyed,
the beckoning finger,
the sword in the frozen lake
far, far away

 

〉Part of a new Lent project: poems about hills. Grinlow is in the Peak District, above Buxton.

Denver sluice

Like a reluctant schoolboy
sent shuffling home to put on uniform,
the fen sky shifts from grey to grey:
deep mud on the banks of the Bedford
sucks in the scents of the sluice

The big rivers are laid bare:
in the paleness, thrown-back pictures of skeleton trees
vie with abandoned boats,
submerged, half-rotting posts
and the peacock on the pub sign,
surprisingly alive, to draw the downcast eyes
of the silent angler

Propped outside the inn, cooks speak
in foreign tongues on mobile phones,
reheating arguments,
while van men munch sandwiches
in the car park

The road winds off along the bank
aiming for oblivion
and only just missing:
staging posts to eternity
lurk where the track widens

Geese glide in onto flooded fields:
the angler climbs the bank
to gaze across watery miles
into different countries
as the day oozes out,
looking for something out there beyond the edge

something to catch his eye
something swift and silver that might
make sense of it all

 

 

Another poem from ten years ago and set in the Fens. It appeared in my collection, Off the Map, which is quite appropriate:-)