Poems

The first six poems here are from my next collection: Each Other.

Their colours

His red is third from the right,
middle row of his childhood paintbox.

Her red is the engine rev-revving, dark red
of a wasp buzzing, an infant bawling.

His blue is less a colour, more a feeling,
something not quite right or going wrong.

Her blue isn’t steady. Bruise. Blackberry stain.
The blue she wants is rain on tarmac.

His yellow was a primrose on a mossy bank.
Now it’s an old sheet, a wasted afternoon.

Her yellow is pills in bottles on a dusty shelf,
the long drop down the dry well.

How they are as time passes

He’s never been the sort of man to notice
the length of her skirt or how she hums
when she sets the breakfast out
before they go to bed.
Instead
he stares across the pond, seeing
black on the surface.
He notices
the lawn: how green, how very green it is.
He doesn’t seem to hear
the way her voice slides upward, saying
Tomorrow? as he braves his lips to hers.

How weather affects them

Accustomed to the yes and no of things,
one day she’s brimming, mercurial,
the next, a dish of mud.

When it’s wet, he remembers drought.
When there’s only dust,
he wants rain to flood the shallows.

Winds have scoured her surface,
sunlight has bleached her.
She knows the tight smother of ice.

He positions his boot with care
and enjoying the pressure, the give,
lets his weight slow-shatter the crust.

Leaflet accompanying his prescription

Talk to your Pharmacist if you
take Beta-blockers or Medicines that make you Drowsy
Talk to your Doctor if you may be Pregnant If you are Breast-
feeding If you plan to become If symptoms do not
If you develop new symptoms If you are

Do not if you have ever had
Nerve damage Ringworm Allergic reactions
Heart failure Do not with Paracetamol or Anti-
coagulants Avoid if intolerant If pump has not been worked
for a short period re-prime Never mix with Alcohol

Swallow morning and evening with water
for a week Do not chew If Drowsy do not operate
Never take extra if you wake Do not allow to freeze Do not
use after If you ingest by mistake
Skip at least one

You may drink Alcohol
If you accidentally overdose do not worry
Go immediately to Casualty If you feel no better
Resume as soon as you remember Apply a thin layer Wait
one hour A single Dose may be enough

If you experience Tingling Flushing
Cramps Palpitations Skin rash Weakness
Bleeding or Swelling of face tongue lips or throat Drowsiness
Confusion Increased growth in unexpected places
Make another Appointment

Keep out of reach of Children
Away from naked flame Ask your Pharmacist
about disposal Do not in household waste Set aside
some time each day to Relax and Unwind Keep this safe
You may need to read it again

Her possible deaths

After she’s prepared, she goes downstairs and opens the front door, to find more than half of them missing. This is regrettable but there’s nothing to be said or done.

All day she wonders how many will still be there by nightfall, and she goes about finding things for their comfort. She wants to make them comfortable.

She lays things on the grass around the house – cushions, books, magazines. Red and green apples, cheese and bread. They take what they want, then move away into the trees.

For hours she watches from an upper window, heedless of sunlight edging across the room. By evening, almost all of them are gone.

Just three return the next day, and the next, week after week, helping themselves to her offerings. She comes to think of them as companions, friends. She hopes she won’t have to choose between these three.

How she goes on

When she repeats herself, when she tries
to explain her feelings, pin them down,

he listens for two minutes, no less, no more,
then fills the kettle, sets it on the stove.

While it rumbles and coughs, he considers
the voices around him, their various tones.

The kettle hisses, rattles. And this woman
rattles and hisses too, pacing the kitchen,

her voice rising now with the steam –
higher and thinner. Last week she said

precisely this, how she couldn’t go on.
Can’t go on. Next week she’ll say it again.

Here are two poems from Springlines:

Water spirit

Jack squats
by the weed-green pool
watching water
tumble
swirl and ditch

chasing
into the drown-dark –
endless flow work

all sap-skin
Jack sinks
into writhing wetblack –

head dipping under
and up

the fierce joy-ache
of his frozen skull

and the red iron tang

making him
flip-kick
spit-laugh
shiver-grin

 

windhints trick-track
air teases water
teases Jack
resting in the deep
inkdark under

windcricked
Jack slow-turns
lift-drifting
quicker now
swells and churns
black stroke blue
mudspins
curls
reaches up

bending into sliplight

slick-backed
all awake Jack
breaks through

and surface-dances

trembling with ripple work

Cart pond, East Chiltington

Low sky. Low mist. Oak leaves curl
the surface of the pond. This pool
is dark green, old. Carts once
stopped here on summer afternoons –

tall nettles, light playing on water,
oxen and horses drinking at the pond’s
perimeter as men dragged
the cart frames in deep and deeper

to slake the wood of iron-tyred wheels.
At dusk, the men waded back in,
hauled out the carts – everything
fitting again, for now.

Summer, cart wheels, clear water.
All known, forgotten. Half-submerged.
Like those men rolling the carts down
and into the pool’s heart.

This poem won the Poetry on the Lake International Poetry Competition in 2013:

The Aftermath Inspector

The boy wakes to the red call in the green night.
Unmoving on his narrow bed, he hears
his father run downstairs to fix quick tea, and then

his steady dressing – overalls, gauntlets, waders –
according to what kind of aftermath it is.
Hours until he’s back, hours the boy wonders

how many yards of buckled track, how many carriages.
He imagines arclights, inspectors gathering screws
and bolts, identifying scattered parts.

Later, his father props the waders in the shed
and sits. Resting, he says. The boy stays close,
waits for him to search his bag. A trophy from the site.

Over the years he’s brought three merlin feathers,
the cracked skull of a hare, one perfect ammonite,
a roe buck’s antler (velvet still attached)

and now this grey stick with the sway of a swan’s neck.
The boy watches his father place the keepsake
on the store-room shelf, he sees him

climb the stairs to wash, and dress
in other clothes for other work, as people do
who witness engines burst open in the dark.

Here are two poems from ‘Self-portrait without Breasts’:

Two weeks before surgery

Cast me and I will become what I must be

We’ve oiled my shoulders, collarbone,
breasts – olive-scented, shiny
as greased rubberwood, I’m primed for casting.
You soak chalky bandages, wrap me

in slapstick layers of white –
a sacrament to tender body and life.
Working fast before the plaster sets
we smooth wet dressings onto slippery skin –

keep my contours, take my shape;
at every fold and ruck we stop, look closer
to remember. I lie death-still, encased,
breath slow-drawn, not to crack my shell:

an end and a beginning. Beneath the carapace
I hum a lullaby – you lift the curves away,
cast off my breastplate,
air moving like shadow over sentenced flesh.

Breast care nurse

She whistles in – flat shoes, primary colours,
wide smile:

Remember to take some softies when you leave –
use them as soon as your wounds are closed,
wear them with a comfy bra, baggy top,
nobody’ll guess. Then call and make a date
for silicone ones, any size you fancy, they’ll look good
under a T-shirt or vest. Try different brands
till you find what suits – so many kinds,
even stick-ons for nights.

I want to tell her
I am my own woman-warrior,
heart just under the surface. I let go of pretence
weeks before the surgeon drew
his blue arrows on my chest.

‘Lost’ was first published in Excisions:

Lost

The morning’s summer-skinned,
not a morning for a funeral.
There’s no escaping
the lightness of the box
covered with layers
of pleated white paper,
more like a writing box,
a case for a rare trophy.
It is not a twelve-inch coffin.

She places on the white box
a neat twist of lavender,
deep red rosebuds,
sage and rosemary
from her garden.
They put the box
on the back seat of the car
and she sits next to it, resting
one hand on the unfixed lid.

At the crematorium,
there’s too much time.
The papers are all
in order. The chapel’s
dusk dark, heavy,
and here the box looks
even lighter and too small
lying on the catafalque,
so white and on its own.

I wrote ‘Airman’ when I was writer in residence at Woodlands Organic Farm. It was first published in Resurgence and then in Treasure Ground. It has been broadcast on BBC Radio Lincolnshire.

Airman

Flying Officer Ray Bédard, aged 25, of 439 Squadron RCAF, was flying from RAF North Luffenham in a Canadair Sabre MK2 on 23 June, 1953. He broke from formation and was killed after bailing out while his aircraft was in a steep dive. The plane crashed in a field by Whitehouse Farm near Woodlands.

There’s still the geometry
of lanes and dykes and hedges,
a spirit-level horizon. East, the North Sea
sheet-metal smooth to the sun.
West, a thousand fields beyond Long Tankins

hundreds of nameless shades of green.
Now, as then, the invisible skylark
rehearses, rehearses. The marsh harrier
glides low over wheat, drops on a vole.
Hares lie in hollows, unblinking.

I wrote ‘Valuables’ when I was working at HMP Shepton Mallet.

Valuables

At the second razor fence
she turns right
for the visitors’ locker room;
she leaves her stuff
and takes the key,
pressing it into the corner of her pocket
like a lover’s keepsake,
something reassuring to touch
knowing that later
she’ll wriggle the key
and spring the little vented door
to reclaim the purse,
the driver’s licence, the paracetamol,
the blockbuster she was reading
this morning, as she sat in the sun
on the steps outside
waiting to go in.