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:-)

 

Never going away

(for David Holgate, 1939-2014, musician, sculptor, master letter-cutter)

The letter is the music
carved like jazz into Welsh slate,
the bass notes
not too hard and flat,
rubbed down again,
until the skin is soft enough to bear it –

until the message swings and sings,
digging into the past with passion
then surfacing again
touching the apple
and the cathedral,
inside and out

Just making things, he said,
doing things properly,
in the spirit

I see him catch beauty in a trap –
catch its essence, like prayer,
then set it free,
leaving his fine, exuberant mark,
never really going away

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking both ways

At Venta Icenorum a man runs
along ancient walls after sunset
a shadow against the sky

Is he running into the future
or into the past?

When we look through dust-boxes of your memories
we see the past:
secret pictures with no captions
fading postcards from forgotten journeys
diaries of household chores
keys with no locks

official documents no longer valid
dumb cassettes and lost technology

and then with no warning
we see the future: our own boxes
dumped in someone’s bedroom

our son and grandchildren
looking older
searching for something
they can make sense of
something that can bring us back
or send us on our way

shadows against the sky

 

This is a poem from my new book, published yesterday and called Waving from a Distance. One or two other poems from it have been used on this site. It is available from Amazon, should you feel that way inclined.

Refugee

Time shifts and slides
sometimes slow, sometimes fast,
sometimes black, sometimes white,
sometimes red

Nine short months a howling wilderness
in distance travelled, like a refugee,
waiting for something to happen,
a death or a birth

Dark frontiers must be crossed
and there is nothing written down,
no instructions,
nothing certain, nothing to show

You glimpse the future
then it darts back into hiding

and just when you think it will soon be over
you must travel to a new place
where there is no home
where there are people who may hate you
who wish you were not there:
papers to be signed

and you have no power
except the power within you
which seems so small

 

This poem was also part of the alternative carol service. I hope its relevance there is fairly obvious.