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TALES FROM UTOPIA

"Petey!"
My mother's child-like voice floats up from the back door, navigates the coal bunkers and the huge girth of the leaning yew tree, the cinder path leading to the washing line, where cotton blouses and pillow slips hang, up past the tangle of fallen marguerites and up, over the turf, past the fuchsia bushes to where my father works, hoeing between the French beans.
"Hello!"
He shouts back, right hand leaning on the hoe like a staff, left hand propped on left hip, unwilling to respond more. He heard the clapper of the outside telephone bell twanging between the iron covers but engaged in the ritualistic scrape and jut of the hoe, allows himself to be lulled onto a peaceful plateau, above the exigencies of the every day world.
"It's Granada Television!"
"Coming!"
The hoe is thrown down and the garden disappears behind his back.

Daddy doesn't like high heel shoes or "Woman's Own". He and mummy are having a private conversation in the kitchen, waiting for the pigswill to boil. Bella, my second eldest sister, is in trouble. She's been going out with an older man. I wonder if he's common? That's what daddy always asks, he says he's only joking but I'm not sure. Bella came home from school in a mood, she wouldn't talk to anyone except Charm, the pug. Now she's leaning her back against the fireplace hood in total self -absorption. I could be a speck of dust for all she cares. I'm nine, myself, and plagued with all manner of dark thoughts about death and dying. The whole idea strikes me as catastrophic and I don't know why we aren't all weeping together, day and night about the inevitability of it all, but most people, apart from daddy, who resents the idea dreadfully, act as if it wont ever happen.
Anyway, this weekend, when one of the broody hens has hatched out six of her eight eggs and Lily the cat is looking for a place to have her kittens, Bella comes home with the news that she and Alfred, the Art teacher, have started an affair. I over heard her telling Susan, my other sister that it all began in the swimming pool when he'd pulled her under and gave her a French kiss. Now mummy and daddy are both looking grave, heads together around the kitchen table and the smell of boiling potatoes is beginning to sicken me.

"I've won! I've won!" Mummy shouts, opening the window to her bedroom, which doubles as a study. Her hair sticks up in dark disheveled spikes. I'm sitting on the lawn, on a clear space between the duck shit, which the Indian Runners have left behind, like squirts of olive green oil paint on an artist's palette. I'm feeding my sister Nell's guinea pigs with drooping lettuce leaves. She's bribed me with first read of The Beano and a bite of her Crunchie, if I keep them from annoying Daddy with their extravagant squeaking, while she goes to the gymkhana with Peter Buckman, the only good looking boy in the neighbourhood. He's tall with a lock of ebony hair that falls over his right eye. It's enough to make me sulk all afternoon and there's my mother at the window, waving a piece of paper frantically. By this time, my father is running down from the pig run where he's been scratching the Tamworth's belly and the home -help, Eileen, is standing underneath, looking blank and adjusting her pale pink spectacles.
"I've won!"
Mummy cries again,
"I've won fifty pounds with my radio play and I'm going to buy a cow!"

It's Monday morning, Daddy drives us to the station in his navy blue Austin. I sit silent in the back with my sister, Nell. In her tweed coat and wool headscarf knotted under her chin, she's fourteen going on forty and I'm even older, at nine, belted and stuffed into my coat like an OAP. Daddy drives suavely, double de-clutching as we approach the B249 towards East Grinstead. Turning off at Forest Row, we motor down the long narrow road that leads to the station. The stationmaster greets us with a raised arm. Daddy buys our tickets: Two halves to Victoria, weekly return. In a couple of months my sister will be fifteen. Daddy hates the thought of that because it means that a. she is growing up and b. he'll have to fork out the full fare. Still weekly boarding school does get us out of the house from Monday to Friday.

The signal changes from red to green and falls with an abominable certainty; round the corner, the train from Tunbridge Wells comes gushing up the track, rolls of white smoke coiling up into the sky. Once halted, daddy twists open the stiff handle of the carriage door and we get in with our square suitcases and our heavy hearts. Daddy says,
"Goodbye my darlings, goodbye!" For a moment he looks anguished then turning to the Waiting-Room window he surveys his handsome face in the glass and running his hand over his hair he mutters: "Hedda, Hedda Garbler".

Ambit 2013

TEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT MOTHER

1. She wrote with a pencil. Easily filling up the blue lined note- books.
2. When making a correction she would rub out and write over the ghosts of discarded words.
3. In the photo she's looking up my father.
4. No longer seaworthy.
5. Words come in unexpected arrangement:
'A flash of rain fell in the ditch.'
6. A strong smell of Comfort in the room.
7. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor.
8. The stream rushes on.
9. Her poems, her stories, rolled up inside.
10. 'My darling, darling daughters,' she says to us, to the trees.

2010

TENEMENT BUILDINGS, NEW YORK

There was a humming in my head all day long;
it was Aunt Ida working the treadle of the sewing machine

and a sour smell
from the blue tongue of gaslight

that hissed through the glass cup.
I was afraid of the raised iron

with its dragon eyes –
"Tush, tush, tush,"

and ma would pass by with her big skirt swishing
but she didn't pick me up.

There was a loaf on the table, like a golden plait
and gherkins, fat as thumbs in a jar.

The kettle whistled when it steamed and boys
whistled up and down the ironclad stairs

delivering cloth and collecting garments
for the up-town stores.

Once father burnt himself lifting the tin pan:
boiling water splashed up

red as fresh strawberries
on his white skin.

Then ma wrapped the arm in a wet cloth
and he sat down and wept like a man.

2012

TERESA BOSELLI

The ugly sounds of the street,
the greasy clatter and glare,
a girl lay under the sheet,
white face in a pool of hair.

The greasy clatter and glare,
a hell composed of sound,
white face in a pool of hair,
mother to daughter bound.

A hell composed of sound
in a room above a shop,
mother to daughter bound,
the wheels of life wont stop.

In a room above a shop,
Teresa Boselli prays;
the wheels of life wont stop
the mistake of youthful days.

Teresa Boselli prays;
'Give me the fruit of my womb!
The mistake of youthful days
will go with me to the tomb.'

'Give me the fruit of my womb!
A daughter that fell from grace
will go with me to the tomb
with her sweet Italian face.'

A daughter who fell from grace,
a girl lay under the sheet
with her sweet Italian face.
The ugly sounds of the street.

from Ambit 144 1996

THE APPOINTMENT

Mr. Farnes, in his white jacket,
ushers us to the chair,

comb and scissors in top pocket,
hair smooth as a blackbird's throat.

The hot smell of the shop,
mother's hands lying idle in her lap,

she looks down, avoiding the mirror's glare,
draped in a pale pink cloak.

Round her he flits, snip, snip, snipping,
with speed and grace

until she's led like a dunce
to the washbasin

and the young trainee, who does her best,
vigorously lathering the dirty curls

with slender fingers,
wraps the towel around her head

and mother laughs
as the dirty water swirls away,

knowing she will never be brought into line
or ordinary but for a short time

allows herself to be trapped
under the dryer, reading a book.

from Ambit 201 2012

THE ART TEACHER

Adam and Eve on the dining-room wall,
red whirls for apples,
snake twisting round.

Smell of powder paint tins,
the water wouldn't mix
unless you drove the colour in.

I'd sit on his knee eating toast,
feeling the heat
on the back of my jumper;

postcards sobbing with colour,
jugs, faces, breaking apart
under the weight of letters.

He kissed me,
his shirt open to the waist,
swarmed me like a statue

unguarded in the night,
standing in my bones
but the arms won't go right.

from Ambit 144 1996

THE BLUE APRON

A rare thing hung in a glass case,
Like an open wing strung out between two pins,
It was a shroud,
Mended ad infinitum,
The distilled rising of a cloud,
Butterflies bearing up the dead.
How did this map of tenderness survive?
A patchwork apron hewn with needle and thread.
An old Gestapo Kino plays films about Terezin.
For what I did not know, I cannot mourn,
Yet unformed words are beginning to form…
It was as pale as dried cornflowers,
Bleached to gossamer sail in places,
The stitches like railway tracks over blue fields.

from Twenty Poems Rough Winds 1999

THE BUTTONS ON MY COAT

The buttons on my coat,
I dropped them left and right,
Hoping they would lead me back
Home in the moonlight.

They led me back alright,
But what I found out there,
Was fear coiled up
Under the back stair.

They took us out once more,
Into the tangled wood,
Where owls flew on wings of death,
Eyes seeking blood.

My brother held the bread,
Breadcrumbs fell like lace,
Eaten up by hungry birds
Leaving not a trace.

The dark hid my face,
We clung through the night,
With morning came a dove,
Circled in the light.

It took us to a site,
A golden house of cake,
Icing lay in luscious drifts,
A white sugar lake.

A gold house of cake,
Roofed with gingerbread;
We ate the sugar window panes,
Saw the clean white bed.

A woman with a bony head
Stood on the earthen floor,
Taking both our tiny hands,
Entreated us to more.

There were sweetmeats galore,
We had pancakes soft and wide,
Then blissful, tumbled into bed,
But when we woke, we cried.

We were prisoners inside!
My brother fattening in a cage,
Me a servant to a witch,
A servant full of rage.

The boy dressed like a little page,
Substituted bone for flesh,
Stuck a drumstick through the bars
And she never even guessed.

Yes, we were distressed,
But forced to use invention
I opened the oven door
And pushed her body in.

We fled the burning kitchen
With her pearls in a tin!
We went home independent
And forgave our kith and kin.

from Twenty Poems Rough Winds 1999

THE DAY OF THE DEAD

I would bring you sugar skulls.
Papier-mâché bones dancing
in the red dust.
I would bring you bowls and bowls
of marigolds and
I would bring pain du muerto
the soft bun,
with a tear drop
baked upon its crust.
My stolen beauty,
the devil's own,
rise up, come home.

THE GREEN CHAIR

Always there, to begin with,
a fixture as much as my father, himself,
relaxing before dinner
by the flames of the fire.
My mother in the kitchen,
clinking saucepans on the oven top.
In here we are listening
to classical music,
swells of undulating violin,
cascading water of piano.
The movement of music
gallops on golden hooves
in and out of my ears.
How playful it is,
mixed up with tight tears
falling somewhere inside
like rocket sparks on wet grass.

Years later, when daddy was out,
we would curl up,
day-dreaming over broken love affairs
among the flowers and curling leaves.
Later still, daddy long dead,
mother took to sleeping there;
long rehearsals of being gone.
Every afternoon, the cat on her lap,
her mouth slack.
Oh the darkness of that little opening
and the upward tilt of her sleeping head.

from Ambit 202 2010

THE KISS

In the dark, saying goodbye,
I would kiss you on the lips
and begin to cry.

Imagine, for once, a good outcome
for death. That Heaven
really does exist.

At the gate,
all the people that you love,
waiting to be kissed.

from Twenty Poems Rough Winds 1999

THE LANDSCAPE OF HER

The landscape of her is steep,
monastery steps cut out of a mountainside -

there's something of the Christ about her with her dazzling eyes and
the horse- hair mattress on that creaky, single bed.

The hands that write to us, those deft fingers that knot up ropes
into a dozen different shapes, securing tarps, awnings.

The sun hat of her and the deliberate, low-slung swing
of her Mediterranean gait along the quay.

She is a secret bay where the Aegean,
turquoise green, surges at the wall and iron ladder;

is the dark interior of a kitchen where an old man lies on his bed
piled high with rusty blankets.

Her aura softens the stony road under the silky hooves of donkeys,
the flagon of wine creaks in its twine.

She is a wooden salad bowl, stained with oil,
a fishbone, picked clean.

The sunlight stops at her door, boat blue.
Geraniums, red rags chewed to bits, wait there too.

She's as powerful as a force 9 gale
and slippery as a seal, swimming through our lives.

She is the warp and weft of good cloth.
The music of goat bells trickling downhill.

2012

THE MAIDS

In the kitchen
A parlourmaid sulks in a chair
Stroking the calf of her black-stockinged leg
She's mourning for her sailor
With his blonde curly hair
How she longs for his kiss
To be stamped across her throat
For his words to fall deep inside her
As her body starts to float.

In the cowshed
A milkmaid lurks in the gloom
She wears a cotton frock
And giggles into her hand
She cheeks are wet with little specks of rain
She's been driving her cattle home
Down a silver lane.

In the cellar
A barmaid hallucinates with the boys
Jumps up on the table
Screaming for more noise
"I just want to feel you,"
She says with a moan
"I just want to feel you
To make sure I'm not alone".

In the bedroom
A chambermaid turns down the sheets
Empties the pot
And lays out a wreath.

from The Captain's Death Soul 1974

THE RAGS OF MY DREAMS

The rags of my dreams
Decorate the bare walls
With blisters of colour;
I will have cried that day,
I will have swept the floor then.
Sometimes things fall into places
With an unimagined sweetness,
My goodbye keys on the chair,
The copper waterfall of the beech tree falling outside
And the feelings inside,
Growing like fibres of the woven cloth.
The postman slithers the letters through the letter box,
They fall like a hand of cards upon the mat.
The cat licks herself patiently,
All wait for the dreams to come,
To be sewn with brilliant thread,
To lie around me like a cloak of love,
To keep me from the dead.

from Thirty Poems Rough Winds 2004

THE RAINY SEASON

It's raining hard
but nothing rains like the rain in Cambodia
falling on you like pins and needles
making you stiff with fright.

For days now we hear the constant
splashing against the window pane
the garden is drowning
under the whoosh or rain on rain.

And yet
nothing rains like the rain in Cambodia
where the weight of silver
annihilates your frame

and the ecstatic beats of water
make you want to pray
or hold your breath

watch bluebells bouncing on a tin roof.

from Thirty Poems Rough Winds 2004

THE ROOM WHERE I WAS BORN

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn; (Thomas Hood)


The twin beds,
the yew tree bruising the window,
the ship under a glass case,
the china cow whose leg I broke,
The baby-clothes basket, tucked with gauze.
Loose change, cuff links,
a book of matches half used.
The built -in cupboard where daddy's bristly suits hung
and mummy's wedding dress,
like a piece of mischief,
indecently strange and young.

from Ten Poems Rough Winds 1993

THE SPY GLASS

Bug eyed
with a spyglass,
she spies disasters on the front page:
cocklers caught in the incoming tide,
an empty beach, open wide,
rice crispies falling from the spoon,
a blackbird flies across the lawn.

Shipwrecks, fire,
soldiers, war,
all jostling inside her head.
Like the television screen, bright blue,
bright red. Six o'clock
loud as hell, the big bell bongs.
Orange jello faces stuck talking over
shrieks of grief struck women in Iraq.

Hungry for disaster,
she stares with disbelief
as the images unfold.
Sorrow is her special subject
she's got an Honorary Degree
In all aspects of anxiety
she's been told
how well she's passed the knowledge onto me.

Searching for calamities
with a spyglass held to her huge eye
she sweeps down columns of newsprint
like a feverish bride
looking for a groom.
Looking for a horse to ride
out of this room
this little bed with pillows tossed aside.

2012

THE SWANS

The swans are gazing at themselves,
tubular necks compressed
into a fat S.
The collapsed box of their wings
tipped together at the back
as if they are hinged
upon the pond's black skin.
They gaze and swim and rest
the whole white question mark
ending in a soft shoe beak of death.

Sometimes two blunder-buses take off:
necks like white snakes
they beat the air with ungainly wings,
heavy bundles of feather, bone and flesh,
they skid-mark the water
like water-skiers, braking on black feet,
before letting their plump breasts down
into the black silk sheet.
Then they collect themselves in a shiver
of oily white and glide on.

from Thirty Poems Rough Winds 2004

THE TENNANT

Without his mother's voice to chide,
This man has gone beyond his past,
The crystal waves, oncoming tide.

One cup alone by teapot's side,
Tea towels strung along the mast,
Without his mother's voice to chide,

He mopes for something lost, denied.
Meals on Wheels arrive at last,
The crystal waves, oncoming tide.

It was a Saturday she died,
Always the tears fall thick and fast,
Without his mother's voice to chide.

The books he keeps as friends, beside,
Are Dickens, Tennyson and Proust.
The crystal waves, oncoming tide.

A man's history lives inside,
But death will come too slow, too fast,
Without his mother's voice to chide,
The crystal waves, oncoming tide.

from The Company of Poets Hearing Eye 2003

THE WEDDING

She put up her hands in alarm
And tried to hide in the cupboard.
They found her and marched her out.
Mother stood over her, but she didn't really care,
She looked out of the window,
Longing to be dead or in the garden,
Anywhere but here dressing her daughter.
They made sense of it with paper flowers and stalks of corn.
There was a cake on stilts,
White as her own cow's milk in the pail.
The eyes of the grown ups
Swept her up and down.
Grandmother's silver on the table, now her own.
The trinkets she brought as part of her dowry,
Coins hot and cold in her lace pocket.
The bundle of linen,
Four sheets, four pillow slips.
One rose brocade tablecloth, heavy as water.
Wild strawberries in crystal cups still uneaten by dawn.
In the small, hot bedroom,
She fought for her life under the feather bed
But his hard, probing hands suddenly
Turned soft and stroked her back
With the tips of his wings.

from Thirty Poems Rough Winds 2004

THE WEDDING

i.m. Jessie Simpson Woods

Rain fell like shantung silk
Wrapping the streets, the traffic,
The parcel van and taxis in blue-ish bundles.
Through the open shutters
Light streamed into the room at Daphne's.

Lilies of the valley in water

"Rain at a wedding means good luck!"
The guests ate and drank.
Faces that were once beautiful,
Worn by the vagaries of fortune, were less aloof,
Shoulders sloping into quiet hands.

You sat there dainty as a Dresden shepherdess,
Fragile was written all over you,
Hairline cracks were spreading inside
But you held your shape with a smile
That forbade sorrow.
Wild rose s and their speechless beckoning

You had your man,
Arm in arm you spoke the vows.
Solid, built to last, he didn't want to our live you.
China to china your bones sought the earth.
In your hands you carried bright paper flowers.

from Twenty Poems Rough Winds 1999

THERE IS A BLUE JAY

There is a Blue Jay
hanging from the branch of a pear tree
its cracked beak points to the earth
where the grass grows wild and strong.

I know the man who killed it
and hung it there with string
the pears are hard and dull
gold with scabs on their skin.

from The Captain's Death Soul 1974

THIS HOUSE

The cut-out figure of mother
Giving the order to the shop,

"2lbs demerara , 2lbs caster…"
Small windows of green wood.

Lunch at the ocean table,
The oven door opens and shuts.

Spoons dug into castle puddings,
Hot sponge cracked with steam.

Apple sweet her arms,
Cool as the curtains that lifted

Gently over the sill.
The bedroom confused with sunlight,

Cats curled in pools of fur,
Watching the tradesmen arrive.

My father carried me high,
Safe from horses legs and geese.

We'd consider the pig
While he'd sit me on the wall of her sty.

Love flowed from the gloom
Of his breast-pocket,

Fanning the tail of his handkerchief.
Beyond the fields and gate,

The trees shook with grief.
Days were deep

As the forest spring
That bubbled up in the turf.

This Hansel and Gretel house
Stuck with gingerbread and sugar twists

The windows dark, rinsed with fire,
The roof bitten in.

from Twenty Poems Rough Winds 1999

THIS IS ANGER

This is anger:
thicker than a python
squeezing my heart;

how it hurts
in the daylight
or under cover of night.

Feels like its breaking
like china
under the moon.

No sleep for the angry,
they can't be calm,
no dish, no spoon.

2013

THIS IS DECEMBER

This is December
and the hedges that once had flowers
clasping the air pink as seashells
cast upon the uneven shore
of twigs and branches
are all sodden and clamped down
their hidden teeth set for winter
between ivy and blackthorn
and the beaten bronze of oak leaves
in the ditch not cleared till Spring
that soft hurting thing
comes up again and again
when I had gotten used to the dark
to the sly stretch of redwood against bleached-out
winter grass and sloping winter dreams
that keep me quiet by the hearth
if I am lucky enough.

2012

THIS WINTER

Cold as a silver chain,
Love hangs from me this winter
Like a bracelet from my wrist.

Cold as a silver heart,
Love hangs from me this winter
Like a dead bird from a tree.

This is my winter.
Till the twist
Of the grub
On the leaf turns my silver to blood.

from The Captain's Death Soul 1974

TIME IS MY MIND

Time is my mind
(and all the things that will happen or not)
The hyacinths sticking their curled heads out of the blue jug,
The cat pressed against the bottom door of the Rayburn.
Time is dust under the bed and unworn stockings curled in the drawers.
Time is smoke rising from the chimney and a new moon like a shrimp in the black net of a tree.
Time is in the chickens scratching in the straw and the drip of water from the outside tap.
Time is in the spindly, sprouting sweet peas.
Time is a baby asleep, face as blank as an uncooked cake.
Time is in the stiff tulips holding up their closed dishes of red and yellow before breaking apart under the slow drag of opening days.
Time is trains and stations and being late, rushing like a storm of electrical impulses towards something hard and slippery.
Time is the ticket collector waiting at the gate.
Time is the track, the lane and the road.
Time is the motorway from city to city.
It is the snake rising like a gloved finger from beneath the stone.
Time is my ego
(and all the things that will happen or not)
A crazy old tramp lifting up his head from the dustbin of my thoughts.
Time is a jug of dreams poured into me –
Don't stop.

from Ambit 200 2010

TULIPS

Stiff under plane trees
your passionate plumes folded
into nibs of blood.
Sweet plums of darkness
in your heroic elegance
so much gestured.

The slash of an under garment,
leaves that squeak and unpeel.
The vulgar cousins
that crowd into vases;
chronic cases of cracked scarlet
dropping petals on bedside lockers.

In the yellow, in that yellow,
the ghost of a vyella dress.
The slow melt of hard to soft
as the sun beats down
bleaching and bending things
into a field of loss.

Your hearts are gathering
whispers and kindness,
the shadows, the green, the earth.
Engorgement of colour chokes.
The birds' feathers are pointing up!
Their feathers shining through bars.

from Twenty Poems Rough Winds 1999

TUOL SLENG

Dedicated to the artist who survived it, Vann Nath

Of all the prisons in all the world,
this might be the worst
since it lay in the heart of Phnom Penh city
and consumed its people from the inside out.

It's the loneliness of being caught.
The mortal sting
of fear that opens up their eyes
in such a vacant stare.

It's just a register, nothing more

The cruelty of the past
haunts the building
collecting in invisible spores
inside sawn-off petrol cans

once used for shit and piss
smeared like dust
over the tiled floor
or in the concrete corners of the empty school rooms.

Desolation in the dark brown
doors hung open like
broken jaws.
The makeshift cells so quickly built

of breeze blocks and cement.
We walk passed instruments of torture
nausea rising like a stream of consciousness
Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot…

In the searing heat of the courtyard
a huge old tree gives shade.
Barbed wire hangs in a stiff veil
that once netted people alive.

The horses have bolted, the horses have gone

We are stung, but not fatally.
We want to cry but we cannot.
We are so sorry for ourselves,
for the comfort we cannot bring.

from Thirty Poems Rough Winds 2004