'Tickover Speed', a new commission from the Canal & River Trust, has just been published online as part of the Canal Laureate scheme.
Go to: https://waterlines.org.uk/blog/the-skitter-and-splash-of-the-scullers-oars-a-new-poem-commission/
Having 'outed' myself as a poet in the local boating community – with news of the National Poetry Competition shortlisting – I thought I'd put on a gig. Holy Cross Church stands on a raised mound just a few yards from the South Oxford Canal, with amazing views east, across the ridge-and-furrow of the old mediaeval field-system, to the ruined manor house at Hampton Gay. On Saturday July 28th the church played host to 'Love Songs at Lammas' – an evening of poetry and music performance – with Jo Hamilton from Xogara, the Owl Light Trio, Bruno Guastalla and Pete McPhail. Alan Buckley joined me onstage to provide the poetry. The weather was balmy, the church was packed to the rafters, and we raised over £800.00 for the church restoration fund.
On 28th March the winners of the 2017 National Poetry Competition were announced at a glitzy gathering at the Savile Club in Mayfair. 'AngelBat' (see Archive) was one of ten poems to be shortlisted from the approx 13,000 entries submitted.
Summarizing the judges' decision Pascale Petit wrote:
"What a pleasure it was to come across ‘AngelBat’ with its playfulness and surprise ending. It’s a poem that feels like it wrote itself, the language transparent and relaxed. There is the love of the parent for the child, the child for the parent, and a mischievous goddess’s love for the world and all in it. The tone is airy and celebratory – and the lines capture the exuberant energy of a baby, and of a parent energised and learning from a baby. As I read it I felt as if I too was being swung upside-down and dangled. I loved the way the game kept shifting unpredictably. Who is being swung and who is doing the swinging? Why is the baby so wise and grown-up? Why does the parent want to swap places? The answers could be weighty, but their treatment is light. It is hard to write happiness, but ‘AngelBat’ turns philosophical insights about our human condition into a hybrid bat-angel of wonder."
For details of the shortlisted poems and the competition winners go to:
Last year I turned forty but these days I find
my wisdom bested by a toddling child.
“Hold me upside down by my ankles,” she says, “and swing me from side to side.”
And I say: “Ella, my lovely,
if you had only mined the depths of fickleness in me,
if you only knew how little I deserve your trust, you’d never ask.”
And she says: “Hold me upside down by my ankles,
and swing me from side to side like a pendulum.”
So I do.
Below the pinchmarks of her nappy
her belly is as round and as smooth and as full of laughter as an unbaked bun.
And the hairs of her upturned fringe strike sparks of pure gold from the carpet.
In their afterglow she pleads: “Again.”
And I say: “Ella, my lovely,
if you only knew how rich a seam of unreliability you’ll find in me, you’d never ask.”
“But it’s fun,” she says. “Really … you should try it sometime.”
In my dreams I pray to the Goddess:
“Hold me upside down by my ankles and swing me from side to side
like the pendulum of a Grandfather clock.”
And that’s just what the Goddess does.
Squinting upwards, into the radiance, I can’t help but notice
that my navel’s crammed with grey-green fluff.
And the thought comes that it’s ages since I changed my socks.
“It’s no good,” I say, “I feel like a Bat, I feel like a large, ungainly Vampire Bat.
Maybe we could try it the other way up?”
So we do.
And for a moment, for the briefest of moments,
suspended by my armpits in the grip of the divine,
I know myself utterly and completely an Angel.
Angel; vampire bat. Vampire Bat; angel.
Bat, angel; Angel, bat. Batangel; Angelbat.
In the early morning bustle of coffee-brewing and mislaid socks, I seek her out.
“Ella, my lovely,” I say,
“In my dreams I dreamed I was a cherub
with teeth like hypodermics and a freezer full of Type O blood.
In my dreams I dreamed I was a Vampire
haloed in gold and endowed with all the wisdom of the Seraphim.
In my dreams I dreamed I was an angel. In my dreams I dreamed I was a bat.”
And she looks at me, with infinite compassion, from out of her three-year-old eyes
and says: “Such little progress, and so much to learn …”
And she squats, and shits serenely on the living room carpet.
Four suits in a pack of cards –
tell me, which one will you choose?
Cut the deck like a bale of cloth, select your trumpery.
Will it be the scarlets of passion, of the carnal?
Or the darker shades of guile and subterfuge?
Are you a swordsman, draped in the silk and swagger
of Spades, with moonlight hung in ribbons
from the whetted blade you carry at your side?
Or do you prefer the coarser homespun
of the Queen of Clubs? The wand, the cape,
a ravening knowledge of the powers of Earth ...
The dealer dimples prettily from across the baize,
proffers the pack. “Or something more bespoke?”
she says. “More Saville Row?
The brash of Diamonds in a suit as sharp
as the deals you cut or the shares you short?”
“Oh no,” I say, “for me, it’s Love or not at all.
For me it’s Hearts.” And,
“Oh, my punch-drunk Romeo,” she coos,
“consider the blows that Love will land:
the jiltings, and the cuckold’s horns,
the breaking-up by text,
the doormat after-life of lust that’s spent.”
“It’s Hearts,” I say, “or not at all.”
“Then cut!” she says. I do.
And grinning upwards from the pack
in slack-jawed merriment, his motley
spittle-flecked I spy The Fool.
“Well, there’s a thing,” cries Lady Luck.
She gathers up her bustle and the cards and makes to leave.
“It’s strange,” she says. “I always count the pack.
I’m sure I counted fifty-two.
That’s quite a talent you must have!”
Four suits in a pack of cards - tell me, which one
will you choose? Four suits in a pack of cards –
and in their midst a Fool.
My daughter's six years-old. Last Saturday
we went to Cowey Sale to feed the birds.
We stood there with our bags of bread.
A swan approached, a full-grown cob,
ungainly, lordly, every inch as tall as her.
He stretched, and spread his wings – I felt their waft.
She never flinched, she held her ground.
She fed him titbits from the bag. I felt so proud.
We stood there on the Surrey bank
and stared along the Thames to Walton Bridge.
“What do you see?” I asked her. And she said:
“A bow, a metal rainbow with its feet touching the earth.”
I smiled; she said: “When we get home tonight
I want to stay up late and watch the Stars on Ice.”
One day, perhaps this year, we'll walk across that bridge.
We'll cross, as so many have crossed before:
its span of wood and stone and brick
remade in steel – the girders braced and tensioned,
tempered to withstand the shock of centuries to come.
I'll lean against the parapet, ask her what the future holds.
She gestures to the bridge's end. “I want to dance,”
she says. I tell her: “Sweetheart, you already do.”
She thinks I'm teasing her. I'm not.
With every step she takes she makes the world anew.
It’s the hazy, dusky drunkenness that comes after sex -
a seed-sown, harvest-home contentment
in the woodlands and hedgerows -
the trees at ease with themselves in their pollen-passed
conception achieved for another year,
their branches pregnant.
And listen - you can hear the stretch-marks ripple
through the swollen purple of the plums and wild damsons,
a come-hither calling to birds, and boys with sticks
and girls with lips grown sticky with eating.
Listen - to the pinprick primp and pimple
of the thousand tiny eyelets of the blackberries.
The blushes redden on the apples’ cheeks.
The gloss grows more lustrous on the beads
of sloe and haw and hip.
In their spiky shells the chestnuts harden to mahogany.
And the trees themselves grow languorous, like-to-like,
link arms across their lovers’ lanes,
caress a fading consciousness.
How was it for you? the oak trees ask.
The ashes nuzzle at each others’ necks.
The birch are still a-tremble.
And at their feet the warm earth opens
to receive another generation.
He could turn his hand to anything –
as easy with an adze as with
the inlay on a rosewood box.
For him, God grew in the grain
of cedar, nestled in the clench
of the walnut case.
In bed he gentled me like pearwood.
I peeled beneath his hands.
He hollowed me.
So, yes, I knew as certainly
as ever I knew anything
that what I bore was sacred.
No need for lightning-rods or visitation.
I saw it in the jut
of shavings in my lover’s beard,
the laughter of my cousin
as she oiled my skin and brushed
my swollen belly with her hair.
When Death comes, svelte in her lycra catsuit
and toting a silken swag-bag;
when Death comes thieving, stealing to my bedside
on the soles of her stockinged feet;
when Death comes ...
I want to be ready, my heart thrown open
like a storehouse of delights for her to ransack.
I want to watch her as she makes her reckoning,
scanning that hoard with the practised eye
of a true professional.
I want to follow the sweep of those tapered fingers
as she makes her first selection:
crumples to her nostrils
that pair of satin briefs - you know the ones -
with the hand-stitched bow
that stood like a cross, like a false prohibition
on the brow of your crotch.
I want to be there when she fans that drawstring bag
and pops them in.
I want to know that it’s the last I’ll ever see of them.
I want to throw back the covers and join her,
sit beside her as she rifles the scrapbook
where I’ve kept our daughter’s journey into life:
from tadpole in the ultrasound to surly teen.
“Aah,” she says, “that’s good, that’s very good …”
And the mouth of the bag is cavernous,
dense as a collapsing star.
I want to watch the curl of her lips
as she takes from me
the fruits of a boyhood summer’s beach-combing,
the mermaid’s purse, and the cowrie-shells
my mother threaded on a necklace;
the vapours from a rain-drenched flower-bed;
the mists that rose around us
as we punted on the Cherwell.
I want her to be pitiless. I want her to know
this life I’ve led has been suffused with joy,
has been infused, infected, insurrected with the joyful.
I want her to be envious, to pick me clean.
I want to enter the Bardo bone-white, empty,
ready to learn just what it is
that I’ve to live for next.
We sit in corridors of light and take our conspicuous ease:
the evening papers open on our laps, the silk constriction
of our neck-ties slipped, waistcoats unbuttoned.
And if we speak at all we speak in murmurs, voices
barely raised above the chatter from the tracks, the kiss
of steel on steel contained by rubber, spring, hydraulic fluid.
And what impinges of the night beyond the glass
comes in the tremoring of ice, the miniscule vibration
of a beaker on the wipe-clean table-top,
the subtle change in locomotive pitch as we pass a bridge
or clear a cutting. And once or twice, from out of nowhere,
the passage of another train: the pressure-wave we’ve banked
before us torn apart, its fragmentation shuddering the gap
between opposing carriages. The buffet bows
the panes of plexiglass. The howling builds and builds,
relents at last. We risk a glance at one another,
smile, sit back, remark upon the glories of a double-track.