you know the renaissance court poets had it right
when they said love hurts.
love’s an agony
a bursting beneath your breastbone
that won’t be silent and won’t leave you alone.
it’s shit. the feeling that someone rules you,
holds your heart in their hands
and can do anything to govern what you feel:
that’s love. and it’s awful.
it’s when you’re drunk at 1am
and you’re half laughing into your best mate’s shirt
(because, fuck, they’re so cute
even if you can’t have them,
their image persisting even in absence)
and half crying,
because it hurts.
it hurts. and yet still we idealise love,
still hurling ourselves into its jaws,
still admitting (softly, into our pillows)
(or bitten into our wrists at 2am
when the house is sleep-silent and we’re alone
except for the dreams that won’t stop their livening plague)
that there’s something there, something that moves us,
moves us into attitudes we half know
but mostly know not and can barely hold
for the pain of them,
for love is pain and pain is love
and as you’re lying in bed in the dark hours of the morning
thinking about someone that barely thinks of you
(and their presence in your head is a brutal joy,
the smile and the heartbeats something that’s not really yours)
that’s love
and it’s awful

sheffield, september 25th

I purport to be from the Surrey Hills. 
I have climbed cobbled streets 
(“meet at Tunsgate, yeah?”)
and I know the vista from the back windscreen,
driving up Staple Lane to collect my brother 
(the dim haze of London just visible on the other side of planing fields).

I am not really from the Surrey Hills. 
I am from a flatter part of the county,
where the sloped roads are barely an obstacle to cycling in fourth gear. 
but I know hills. 
I know them as a steep trip into adventure,
a treat upon a weekend. 
I have always liked them. 

perhaps that is why, leaning over the iron railings
at the end of Loxley View 
(with my friend in a jumper taking pictures with an old Pentax)
the wind blowing my hair back towards streets of terraces
exposed to the sky,
the view over the slopes, down to the Rivelin
and up, up through suburban streets to the Peaks
was a painting I wished to hold forever. 

(I would have stayed on that blustered road
long into the night
and watched the lights rise against the dark.
the air at the top of the hills is different somehow.)

and sitting on the slope behind Sheffield station,
I took the last chance to savour a city 
of steep slopes and streets that climb into the sky,
of Peak District stone and leafy lanes,
of a town that grew clinging to the hills. 

the louring clouds over Crookes and Broomhill -
Steel City in the nighting gloom -
were the sort of beauty I can appreciate. 

ritual

I would dance around the Beltane fires.
I’d handfast atop the hill 
(with a boy with red, red hair)
and watch the boats being set loose into the sea.
(I’d watch them burn out on the lake
and sing a keening for lost warriors.)

the past’s mysteries 
are a spell 
whose burr thrills in my veins
(and I can easily hear the stamping of feet in the woods
calling on me to join).

that I could don clan colours
and recount tales in the meadhall;
that I could hear the singing of the drums,
pounding in my blood.

but I cannot touch the fires, the songs,
the past whose rituals are mere inscription,
paragraph in books millennia younger.
(words do not hold the flames,
or the drumming.)
those days are done.
there is no ritual here now.
the woods and the huts are gone.

but still
I think
if I were placed
by the Beltane fires
I would yet know their song

tree line

I rolled silently through the hills of mitteleurope
eyes fixed upon the shapes that land takes. 
(clouds, a low band in the flat of a glacial valley,
were a mesmer I could not look away from.)

at home
I do not often notice the patterns the trees make,
or the uphill slope of the road towards the town
until I am forced to ride my bike up it,
away from the village I rarely notice. 
(even then I do not see the woods,
or the dappling of light upon the tarmac.)

but in the climes of Bavaria, Bohemia,
Badem-Württemburg, 
the slightest swoop of hill,
the smallest plane of open land,
was a diorama into something I know not,
into a world where places outside towns
are not lacking in promise. 

the sweep of the land 
that is not mine
is a romance half told. 

when I shut my eyes 
a ridge of pines was graven on their lids

etymologicon

our place names have none of the easy intelligibility
of German - Obersdorf, Donaueschingen, Karlsbad -
words that tell you who and what and where.
we are distanced from the words on our maps
by the evolution of our tongues,
our English constantly moving on, consigning Thorpe,
Fishguard and Ormskirk into the dust
in the wake of a language that steals and absorbs other tongues
as if it will die without their succour.
our language war gave us these names
and then took away our ability to read them with ease.
so we have long forgotten who founded these towns.
but if we divine their names
we can find their pasts, diving
into the history trove of our polyglot tongue
and ringing the chimes of their place in time,
and bring to life the Romans, the Norsemen, the Saxons,
the tongues that invaded
and twined with our Celtic speech
(for languages are always made of people
and people are the words they speak)

Sète, August 16th

crossing through the extremes of southern France
the flat fields gave way 
to dusty towns. faded buildings rose
(as the Massif Centrale and the Alps 
had done earlier on our journey)
from the sun-beaten ground.
the light dropping lower in the sky,
Sète pulled itself up from the riverbanks.
dirtier than I remembered, the fine buildings tatty 
paled grandeur clear in the late evening.
still charming, but peeling at the edges
(like the way old photographs
start to disintegrate,
fading when left out in the sunshine).
underwhelming.
but as we left town,
clicking smoothly over the tracks,
I was assailed by the descending light 
shining off the lagoon
curving into sight,
its waters hitting me like a punch,
so blue I had to stop and catch my breath

friedrichshafen-lindau

i

it was here first.

it predates all attempts at civilisation.
it was here before it had a name.
(stupid, these humans
who presume they can place names on nature.
how do you name power?)
it has seen them grow
and make forays across its waters
in ever bigger boats.
(they sink no matter the size.)

it remembers the glacial creep down
(through) rock
cutting the place it would take
(where it has now lain for longer than men have memories)
and when you have been ice
you do not so easily lose its hardness.

it will flood regardless of our towns.

ii

I kept expecting to see a bay, a closing off
of the water’s span.
instead the Bodensee continued to flood
into the left field of my vision,
calm water as far as I could see.
pockets of brick, small patches of boats,
docks venturing out into open water:
the mark of humans flitted across the shoreline.
it barely dented the impression of the long, blue Bodensee.
(flying past on the train
even the horizon was the lake.)

gazing out at the unending blue
I thought perhaps the land had become the addendum
to the lake.

iii

I do not know how many lives the lake takes a year
but I have heard stories of escaped prisoners
fleeing across its surface
(black in the dead of night).
I wonder if they are thankful for it.
some say the lake let them cross,
but perhaps it did not care.
three heartbeats and a pair of oars
are nothing when you are the landscape.
perhaps it does not hear us.
perhaps it does not listen.

we and our towns throng to the water’s edge.
we are incidental to its depth
and shining stretch.

rain shelter

London’s grey in the summer rain,
the Thames an unmagical stone
(dead mirror of the soft darkish sky).

the buildings of this city hide,
tracing paper outlines until they sharpen
suddenly, appearing in their muted colour,
their fellows still-indistinct obelisks.
(as if statues approaching the train.)

stepping out into the Waterloo rain,
the drifting crowds are blurred,
casual visitors scared off,
London in a different key.

the misty grey is a comfort, an opiate.
no bright lights. no screaming children.
the faint glow of the city in the darkened day
is a promise greater than all summer cliches.

the subtle shimmer of buildings on reflective streets,
the splash of natives along wet pavements,
fenced garden squares verdant green in the gloom:
London sings under the fog.

to watch raintracks splitting like the tree of life
down bus windows
and see street lights flashing in puddles
(huddled inside warm pubs)
is a romance no sunshine can grant me.

the rain’s steady drumming
is the beat of hope and home
(ground bass to the singing of my soul).
under the low sky
I am safe, drops of water trickling down my face,
an ablution.

I could walk through this city
and no one would see me for the rain

the towns that throng this sea inlet
set the Firth alight,
pinpricks glittering in the sky-dark water,
the depths a glassy mirror.
from my hotel room
the landscape (hills, rolling
down to saltwater) is a picture postcard
that breathes,
the lights of the towns 
magic sparks, their names arcane invocations
(Kirkcaldy, Queensferry, Inverkeithing).

on the train, earlier, crossing the Firth,
a carriageful of commuters had been immune
to the charms of the seascape.
I, elbows on knees, gazed through the struts
of the mighty bridge
captivated by what lay
before me

perhaps one becomes accustomed to the places 
that are the commonplace.
I, after dinner,
rushed out of the back door
and ran up the hilled grass
to stand, small,
in the awe-ful shadow
of the Forth Bridge
and marvel

the firth

laughing down the phone
(the buzz of other people in the background)
my best friend said a name
and I instantly plunged back
into the Charybdis
(imsogladyouweredrunkimsogladyouweredrunk)
that had taken months of swimming to escape.

explaining
(to a boy with whom my relationship
had largely been cheerful,
Frank Turner and plans of revolution)
what happened that week
was like eating glass. the truth bit
even as I corrected his understood version of events.
(the sickness of remembrance
was only beaten out by disgust
at the lie that had become common currency.)

(worst, though,
was the laughter leaving my friend’s familiar voice
and the horror that replaced it.
it was a sound I did not know.)

I remember him saying
‘she’s my best friend, why didn’t I know?’
(before he knew of the black truth)
and perhaps I can’t blame him.
but I didn’t tell him
that my shame
(and the never ending run of fear)
was a polluted river
that I would rather drown alone in
than confess my screams.

I never wanted to be a victim,
but now I’m tarred in his eyes,
the strong friend that would stand upon a barricade
flung, wounded, at its base
(with memories that won’t go away)

only once I had put the phone down
did I cry

phone wound