sample poems

 

See also prose poems

 

How Christa changed everything

And we reflect on our childhoods in Nazareth
before you got to where you are today,
when girl-fun was a donkey-ride to market,
flirting with your dad’s apprentice carpenters,
girlifying our brothers’ dens with curtains.
Mariam’s falafel. Elizabeth’s hand-knitted mittens.
Girl-talks on love, on saving the world, on being mums,
girl-talks about angels and how to become one

before my marriage and your raised consciousness,
my kids, your drivenness, the transwoman carpenter
whose case you fought, your guilt at her death sentence.
You’ve taken this thing up like it’s your life’s mission,
but tonight, reminiscing, swigging red wine
in the dunes, tell me you’re not wistful for
the old Nazareth, before she brought notoriety
and all the visitors; for those simple girl-things.

In Adventus (2017)

 

The thing not said

A ghazal

With so much still to say, you never said goodbye.
That Christmassy snow-day, you never said goodbye.

After our split but before our final parting,
your first staying-away, you never said goodbye;

even meeting to do the dividing: take this
and you’d say okay – but you never said goodbye.

Leaving our joint-owned house, your terrier – my step-dog –
would lick me goodbye but you never said goodbye

though I patted farewell to the button-back chair
as your truck drove away. You never said goodbye.

Then in the station car-park, New Year’s Day –
you heading for Calais – you never said goodbye,

me getting out of my car by coincidence,
surprised I said – Hey! – but you never said goodbye,

only – Rain again! – stepping in puddles, unseen –
Well, don’t miss your train then, you never said goodbye,

though stations are a fitting scene, rough cheek on mine
tingling like a graze, but you never said goodbye,

just – Jen – and in your muscular-looking leather
jacket, walking away, you never said goodbye.

In Adventus (2017)

 

Train, water, geese

You don’t say goodbye, you say –
watch for that view across the water
Philip Larkin wrote about; email me your thoughts.
At the barrier your eyes swivel away,
look at anything, run along the length of the train.
Later I’m not sure if your soft
un-puckered lips almost brushed me.

So here they are: the Humber Bridge harp-like
in this hazy light, water flatter than any
I have ever seen, sealed closed, lidded,
white as the sky, but not skin – not alive
like skin, less human, no pulse
ever so slightly visible beneath it,
this view you brought me home to look at
too smooth and pristine to visualise ships here,
their bitty twig-masts criss-crossing

though you’ve been telling me all day
how ships packed with spices, fresh fruit, booty,
would push into the estuary; this day of wanting you
more than good food, more than water
you could have tugged me in, you could have harboured me
but we did not so much as bump gently
like little boats do.

Your beloved panorama becomes houses,
light industry, small rail stations on the dull plain,
but always, somewhere, water, mirroring.
My hands on the train’s window trace wetlands
that lie too quiet, expressionless.
If I could puncture that deadpan face
with the snapped back of a bull-rush; if you would
skid onto the water like those Canada geese just did,
your feet scuffing up a brilliant shower…

In Thin bones like wishbones (2013)

 

Death of an angler

These are the cliffs: these unwashed necks,
these caves gaped open, oohing and aahing,
and these are the tall, stretched lips
of the cavern, its intricate patterns of lichen,
barnacled molars, the glimpse of weed
in its gullet, the gurgle of its abdomen.

Bits of tackle surfaced afterwards:
a wicker basket in a stranglehold
of bladderwrack, a tupperware
of sandwiches, a rod snapped in two,
a tobacco tin of flies, fully intact,
and, stuck in a crack, a yellow thermos.

Feel the tongue of this current, how this boat
is lapped at. All it takes is one big swallow.

In Thin bones like wishbones (2013)

 

Self

… maybe that’s what self is, not
a tight-inside nub

but what we are, thrown
out and off, un-self-seen, …

excerpt from Philip Gross’ poem Later

When you get sectioned and I phone,
you don’t know how you got there or
what day it is. Visiting with tulips I hear
Duncan from art school is making his mark,
how you want kids, a wife, to get rich like Duncan,
that the Pope is a good egg, that you hate the way
tulips’ perfect buds petal out then disintegrate

and I see your difficult paintings – the hard face
of the premises, gutter-pipe come adrift, trellis
disengaged from masonry, uncontrolled clematis

though you’ve softened a statue’s fractured face,
captured the intimacy between bird and struggling worm,
the messiness of autumn, and that locked gate,
the hill you’re not allowed up, a path wending on
lined with solar lamps that are self-lighting

whatever ‘self’ is, you would once have added,
catching hold of me in my little skirt, your eyes
blue, cool, no sighting of any tight-inside nub
if you ever had one, your tie hanging un-true,
its bad knot, collar buttoned up wrong, hilarious.

In Thin bones like wishbones (2013)

 

End of treatment

After the long, dark winter,
the many samples taken out of you
and poured away, the last appointment
at the centre, the hard facts,
we take to the coast in pouring rain
for a difficult walk on sliding shale,
dodging pebbles that bounce back at us
when we try to fling them as far as the water

and you comment on the
womb-like quality of rock pools;
their dark wetness; their walls
lined with the red mess of anemones
that retract inside themselves when touched;
tight-nubbed clots that shrink
into crevices, shutting out predators,
blood-coloured and yet bloodless.

In Thin bones like wishbones (2013)

 

Peace symbol

At first I felt safe, trying to skate a
peace symbol on the surface
while you picked up and flung a brick of ice
hacked out from beside the jetty.
It clopped hollowly on the hard flat top
as I slid about, forming the silhouette
of a dove as best I could

until what must’ve been a polar bear
took hold of me from behind, climbed me
as a bear would, clambering up my back,
claws digging in. A great tongue
swiped my ear. I buckled
beneath the sheer weight of him,
my dove-shape cracking open.

Before I sank, I saw you enter a log cabin
below the charcoal frizz of trees
on the skyline in the dark light
of that shortest day, as I thrashed about
in the sloppy brokenness, fighting my bear,
anorak sodden, hood filled up
with blocks of ice that forced me under.

In Thin bones like wishbones (2013)

 

Life-model

and I wonder, as I paint her singleness –
so poignantly alone, up there on the podium
in the freezing studio where the rest of us
have kept our coats on, her skin pimpled, bluish,
seeing a quiver ripple up her I wonder whether
taking off her clothes, boots and ear-rings
and ridding her mouth of lipstick (she does this;
wipes it off on her forearm leaving her face stark naked)
whether letting her body be so coldly looked at,
strip lighting so harsh, so unforgiving, whether
letting herself be treated so badly – all our eyes
poking into her in this bare, chilly art-room –
is an act of madness, or a mid-life crisis
or her crying out like a masochist Hurt me.

In KUNST (2012)

 

What the artist habitually does with her one-night stands

Afterwards, she draws them,
pen moving over the dome of this one’s
abdomen then travelling up it,
blocking in his man-breasts,
a broad shoulder, biceps,
the angle between arm and torso

wondering whether to see him again.
Now sweeps down, leaves a light trail of ink –
his back, his hip; sketches the dark mess of
hair and sac and member, reaches once more
to the big square shoulder, that thick neck,
the bulldog look of this man’s cropped head,

how his fingers are small and splay a little,
her skin remembering; her hands remembering
his boneless hips. She picks out the delicate
textured points of his nipples, the ring in his ear,
his indeterminate hairline, wondering why his lips
are uncertain; why, behind his eyes, that shadow.

In KUNST (2012)

 

Eiders

We said eleven at the estuary car-park,
out past that half-built estate,
past Mike and Helen’s new flat
with the panoramas front and back.
We set off on Mike’s walk, on dunes

staked out, he says, for the breeding season.
We all say it’s freezing. Mike tells us
Helen’s expecting. We mess up
the ski-slope of sand beside the roped-off
breeding ground, the hidden nests of terns.

Helen’s striped jogging pants bat out
then furl. The stripes twist round and round
and round. Her lips are blue. Mike zips up
her front and pats it, and points out, up top,
the site of a church, the mound of its wall,

the swelling of a whole village buried
under the dune. Alone I wander over
to the rim of the cove where, on a slim peninsular,
the heavy female body of an eider
is nesting in a crevice

and I can’t help staring at the turn
of her fat neck, her brown plainness,
her drooping flat head, the girders
of her legs beneath the barrow of her;
the heaviness of that motherly belly

so unlike the conspicuous black and whiteness
of the diving duck, his proud maleness,
how he shimmies with the others
on the rocks; how their feathers
point down their bills like arrows.

On the beach we eat bagels brought by Mike,
watching the eiders; how they squat in groups
like picnickers; how whole families of eiders
paddle in rock-pools, shellfish-hunting,
or run over the mud, or fly in long, low lines

across the bay on this cool day in April.
Mike hands out apples. We head for the cliffs
reminiscing about our fifteen-mile hikes.
The ascent is difficult. I glance at Helen
as Mike says, grinning, this is only the beginning.

In The social decline of the oystercatcher (2005)

 

Cormorant

We named birds while we waited.
At least the weather is good, I said,
as her blood ran out into the sun;
as the sea crept closer like a child.
A dark cloud came and went. A cormorant
struck up a reptilian posture, spectating
like a vulture. A seal sang, nonchalant.
Two fulmars landed heavily and swam
as we waved at the coxswain

who waved back, cutting the engine
as he passed the upward-angled bill
of the cormorant swallowing an eel,
neck kinked, elbows heraldic; as a girl
in a wetsuit jumped in and waded across;
as the lifeboat nosed into the shallows.

Last night I climbed back down to the rocks.
A jellyfish threaded with blood was flopped
in the gap where her foot must’ve twisted.
As I touched the tooth, the granite incisor
that ripped her, I heard the guttural laughter
of that lout, that good-for-nothing seabird
with the look of a set-down beer bottle
perched on a buoy, lazy-eyed, scanning about
for some poor fish to snap up and swallow.

In The social decline of the oystercatcher (2005)

 

Berlin Lichterfelde

Behind us, the eastern outskirts.
Beyond us, the fence where the border was
and the evening stretching empty
into the heart of the country.

These hard frosts would sometimes last all day.
I used to count lights in the tower blocks
of that Stalinist housing complex.
There were deer, before the new highway.

That couple walking their dogs
are in the area where the mines were.
Imagine watch-towers along this track.
They’d get out of their patrol cars to chat and urinate,

machine guns pulling on their shoulders.
Imagine hearing the order, seeing another man
run for the border like that dog off its lead
running for the trees. Imagine obeying it.

In The social decline of the oystercatcher (2005)

 

Older Women

A response to ‘Men’ by Kate Clanchy

I love their skin, crazed as an old dish,
their scent like freshly printed literature,
herb pillows, denim gone soft in the wash;
how they chop wood, take nostalgia trips
to Greenham, lift bikes up steps, do weights,
knit socks. I love the glimpse of private space
between shirt and skin, slacks on firm hips
from climbing in France. Women who drink Guinness
and wear rainbow woollies from Brazil, and embrace
other women; women whose positions on sex
are as relaxed as armchairs; women whose exes
are shelved in albums. They’ll grab you like cake,
light your candles, lead you to believe,
then smile, put on their cycle clips and leave.

In Shag (2003)

 


PROSE POEMS

Hotel

What if he has no intention of turning the virtual thing we’ve had on the internet into reality, so will not be outside Leeds Travelodge at twelve noon when I get there in the businessy-looking outfit he wants me to wear with court shoes; will not emerge from the Travelodge just as I’m retouching my lipstick out of nerves, take me by the elbow and steer me into – no, not straight into the hotel but round the back to where the bins are, to where rubbish has been spread across the alleyway by cats or by an urban fox so that it smells bad in the sun, where he pushes me against the redbrick and speaks in a low menacing voice the kinds of words he writes when we chat online.

What if the national economy crashes today between my departure from home and arrival by train at Leeds, at Leeds Travelodge; something so momentous that public transport stops, or maybe it is a terrorist attack, everything stops, or some sort of magnetic force caused by a comet that makes all the clocks and watches stop, or jolts the world out of its timing, so that twelve noon doesn’t even happen and I do not arrive at the Travelodge and will not be taken to the anonymous room he has already booked and paid for, steered by the elbow in an ecstasy (both of us) an ecstasy of anticipation.

What if he forgets the whip. or doesn’t use it. Or doesn’t look at all like the name he has given himself so that I cannot bring myself to call him by it. Christ, what if he just downright doesn’t want to do it to me after all this, all this talk. What if his wife. His little daughter. What if the civil service department he works for. What if instead I stay on the train past Leeds and end up in a god-awful seaside town in perishing cold looking out at the grey sea, at a lone cockle-picker like a dot on the quicksands, and I feel afraid for that person. Life is so fragile.

In KUNST (2012)

 

Occupy Christmas

At the carol service during While Shepherds Watched – still undecided about how best to get through the next forty-eight hours – I am re-living being Gabriel: the frock made of a sheet that I tripped on while climbing up the back of the crib-scene to get above the baby and open out my sheet-wings. How magical it all once was.

The vicar talks about protest, loneliness, corporate greed, his face up-lit by a candle. I don’t know what righteousness means. Saviour I understand as a basic human need. When he reads about those who live in a land of deep darkness, I know that place. When he ends with the promised advent of the Prince of Peace, I want that man

but instead I meet up with you at the anti-capitalist encampment in Centenary Square. Bright snow has cleaned everything; sky glittery, incredible, behind Sheryl on her makeshift platform addressing passers-by about a better world. We are you, she cries out to the dark city, but only the two of us plus a homeless Polish builder smoking in front of the tents hear her, and it is anyway far too cold

so here I am, after all, on your houseboat parked in a canal basin, hanging lights round this cactus, putting out a stocking for a man who doesn’t even do Christmas, who is off alcohol but I nonetheless open champagne

and in the morning you are embarrassed that I have filled you such a big sock that spills everywhere, gift-wrapped packages interspersed with little chocolate Santas although you’re also off sugar. I say – just a few bits, it’s nothing, thinking, no sock big enough for everything I want to give you out of guilt at feeling so sad; you saying – I really love you; me saying – oh Rowan, don’t, and as we’re having sex (all the little gifts getting re-parcelled in duvet), as someone embarrassingly calls out Merry Christmas from the towpath, my eyes are closed; I may never come to this houseboat again

but, obliviously happy, you take me to the Festival of Political Song at the anarchist squat where a reunited nineteen-eighties women’s chorus is singing new lyrics about menopause symptoms as well as the old ones about men’s inadequacies, till a Marxist rocker I vaguely know takes over, his theme exploitation: call-centre workers, cockle-pickers. He does a big strum for the end of the socialist dream but grins as though there is no greater thing on Christmas night than to play a guitar on this podium on the second floor of a derelict woollen mill; these women who are newly grandmothers, this man who sells car parts; he, the boy in the playground who would pinch my arm or ignore me altogether when I tried to play at fainting, when all I wanted was to be saved.

In KUNST (2012)

 

The composer

Whether his pillow cases are ironed or does he sleep with them un-ironed, or does he not even know whether they are ironed or un-ironed; whether he composes into the night with the central heating turned right up, or piles on bohemian jumpers in front of a quaint inefficient electric bar fire (utterly insouciant regarding units of electricity because there’s enough money), totally immersed in his creative inner life like there’s nothing else in this world, or whether he has to be in bed relatively early so as not to disturb his partner’s sleep after midnight which would add stress to her busy multi-tasking workday earning the pennies and mothering, and has to take his turn listening for the children and changing the wetted bed, and sometimes has to rub her back and sometimes make routine love if it fits in, or whether a mistress comes to his studio after dark and lays on the rag-rug naked, or whether his only love is the tumble of black notes, how they tipple-tail onto the page like tadpoles, no, like sperm, the way a sperm swims strongly into existence.

Whether the music is his children, or is his religion, or is the bane of his life that ties him in knots and makes him despair of ever achieving recognition so better get a day-job and stop all this – whether this is what passes through his mind each morning before breakfast or whether he contentedly sits at the piano with his first cup of coffee and feels life itself welling up inside; whether all of life is in this room – this room that is either a well appointed studio with solar-powered heating and much natural light, everything his architect friend could think of to perfect a creative environment, or this room that is a ramshackle attic – whichever, this room that has a zedbed permanently unfolded at one end with old-fashioned blankets and a noticeable but harmless brown stain on the bottom sheet from a long-ago espresso that was concocted in the traditional percolator on the Baby Belling in the corner. No woman to scoop up the linen and wash it. No: no small-minded fussing over bed-linen, because what he has to do today is important. Is nothing less than his raison d’etre.

In Thin bones like wishbones (2013)

 

Ecological disaster

I find it after six months have passed, when I decide to take down the last of her pencil drawings, underneath which is another one, taped up on the wall in her neat way. Oh my god. There, superimposed on one of the dozens of sketches she drew of the outside of me is a drawing of the inside of me. After everything that failed to happen, after everything that didn’t get said.

She has invented – I say invented because she hasn’t a clue what my inside is like – an unscientific sort of network of veins in pink, blue and lime green. Not my colours at all but then she doesn’t know what’s really in there; she never studied me well enough to know what my colours or tastes are and she never asked. So those colours are wrong.

The network of veins she has drawn inside me is as flimsy and delicate as a spider’s web whereas CJ’s depiction of the inside of me is more towards the boldness of the London Underground map because CJ thinks that’s how I function, all Broadway Boogie Woogie, but again, all those bright bold colours are wrong. And the edges ought to blur out, but CJ is far too anal retentive to let that happen.

Perhaps I should be flattered that she perceived this sensitive-looking lacy fragility inside me. I evidently came across to her as complicated. If John on the other hand were to draw my insides he would draw a concrete network of motorways like Spaghetti Junction along which steam-rollers trundle, along which bulldozers bulldoze. A messy grey scribble with no flair or subtlety, the lack of which is no reflection on me but rather speaks volumes about John, who is not an artist but a plumber who can only visualise basic pipe systems. He would build me in Meccano alright but that’s as far as it could ever go.

Black canals is me. That stagnant network that joins up post-industrial cities. I am dark arteries. The black worms of my veins spewing out indelible ink when cut open. Ironically it is John who has a bit of insight into the sluggish passage of liquid along channels, who has the practical skills to steer along these waterways. The time I got cut by one of the above (I’ll leave you to puzzle it out – not John, obviously) was more devastating than today’s oil-spill which has already obliterated the sea-life of a whole ocean and the bird-life of half a continent, the full ramifications of which we cannot yet even guess at.

In KUNST (2012)