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.
if I were placed
by the Beltane fires
I would yet know their song
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.)
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,
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
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
that had taken months of swimming to escape.
(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.)
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
the swathes of the sea blur with the soft grey sky.
no line on the horizon,
and perhaps I can imagine ships
(long, with tall masts, and the beating
of oars) emerging from the mist
that is the water-air,
the day’s colour as much one element as the other.
today there are uniform homes,
lighthouses disappearing into the sky,
trucks rolling along the railway roads
(I can see quite clearly,
through the augury of mist)
there are stone dwellings,
tonsured monks sheltering from the north chill
(and the fearful northmen,
strong boat slicing through the uncertain ocean).
these pines that stretch skyward
are not so different from home,
from the flooded valley sides of their own north.
perhaps it was a comfort
to men so far from home.
in this rugged, bleak landscape
(where the sea eats at the cliffs,
sending earth tumbling to saltwater,
and the fields plane inland to cold infinity)
it is no stretch to imagine
the beating of the oars
and the chanting of the monks
against the storm
Machiavelli Dancing On My Naivete
I have spent many hours in libraries,
My time flitting between books and stories
(Tales that captivate, and heroes that hurt,
Tales of times long since passed but now preserved,
Ideals whose beautiful revolt endures).
Therein I have sought betterment – escape –
To my ignorance – to life’s pity
That has played on stages before my eye
And held a black masque in my starving soul,
A dance held up for scrutiny by books
(Lacking candle, bell, for an exorcism
Of the world’s ghosts.) I fed my soulhunger
With words, fitful passions expressed in print,
Letters in damning conglomerations.
And so I suckled at erudition’s teat…
Machiavelli danced on the grave
Of my naiveté. Marx struck a blow
‘Gainst my human worth. And Hamlet, dark prince,
Sung a keen for my absolution,
Absolutism, certainty dying its death
In a Gatsbied mire of Heisenberg
Keats holding my hand as I fell, infinite,
Into negative capability’s
Blissful embrace. Schrodinger and cat
Bore me up, Eliot anchoring me
Into a placeless time, history -
Everywhere and glorious anywhere -
At my fingertips. Irrepressible
Time (that which had previously afeared me)
Became beautiful, devilry’s details
My new joy, the mundane now transcending
In Joyce, the details describing Hugo’s
Misères changing into Miserables,
Their plight a flight of fancy to me,
To a pale student seeking other worlds,
Other lives, searching for meanings, answers.
Some I found. My darkling soul has adopted
Books as its lifeblood, my mind rampant on pages.
I have been thrown from the heights and seen ‘bad’
- The depths of humanity I guessed at
Then confirmed in margins and underlining -
Explained, taken ideology
To my breast, swallowed speeches like nectar,
Become one with the dark. In this ink-dark
Realm, I have risen, and taken words as wings,
My firmament one of letters, of words
That despond, descend and, finally, rise,
Taking me with them. This is my craft;
I sail it to boundless shores, sure belief
In possibility (and words) alone…
For, if I have learnt one thing in this –
In this voyage into disillusion
And dishonourable truths, revealed and clutched –
It is that hope will endure, glowing bright,
Lighting the path of writer and reader
essentially I am a metapoet