Monday, 7 January 2019

Green Woodpecker

I moved to the Calder Valley in the winter of 2012, and on my first birdwatching wander I was delighted to notice a green woodpecker (Picus viridis).  Dazzlingly, it seemed to bounce on the icy air halfway up a hillside on the edge of the Copley woods, in and out of the ragged hedgerow and skirting a stream.  I followed the bird's course with my binoculars, as it dodged through overhanging branches, swerving over rocks and floating into misty invisibility.  I had been in the valley only a matter of days, and this January morning was my first opportunity to go birding in the local countryside. I had never seen a green woodpecker before. To do so now seemed a good omen.

See the source image
C. Vanessa Blackburn

In the time I have lived in the area, woodpeckers - green and otherwise - have been a not infrequent sight.  Their green speckled coats, wild eyes, patient habits, long thick beaks and the bright, red stripe that daubs their heads like a jester's hat, all combine to reveal a collage of contradictions - a bird which seems at once stately and frenetic, both stylish, and irascible. And every time I glimpse one, I am transported back in my mind to that early morning on the frosty hills, and the sense of promise it seemed to portend.


Up the muddy hill, flitting

among bordering blackthorn,
hazel, skittering
inch by drizzly inch
along a stone-choked stream,
an aerial climb,
you skim the rim of farmland,
acid-dappled laser-beam,
lime light-sabre scintillating
in a neon gleam of feathered fire,
blood-coloured beak
creeping over hedgy wetness
in a thin mirage,
dreambird diving 
through the morning mist.

Wild Deer

Anyone who has seen wild deer will recognize the rustling shuffle, the momentary partings of overgrowth, the startled eyes as a surprised animal stops short, regarding its human observer with something of the child’s startled curiosity. These brief meetings are like wordless trysts.

The Cervidae family, which we know as deer, evolved from muntjac-like animals originating in Europe around thirty million years ago. Deer are not uncommon where I live, and benefit from the combination of woods and open grassland You will see them darting through the trees at Rough Hey, or grazing fruit-rich hedges around former quarry lands at Brighouse. One sighting sticks in my mind more than any. On a sunny afternoon in June, 2012, glimpsed from the towpath where the Rochdale Canal threads its way into the Calder and Hebble Navigation, the Sika doe almost seemed to float along the slope, its head dipping in and out of sight as it wove through low-hung branches. Sometimes, I see them through the windows of a train:


From a train I glimpsed you,
through riddled grilles of birch and ash,
a shadow, foal-shaped but bear-dark,
on that frost-white morning
nudging through the thatch
and bramble of a streamside cluster
of newly budding bushes

In The White Doe of Rylstone, Wordsworth relates how:

The presence of this wandering Doe
Fills many a damp obscure recess
With lustre of a saintly show;
And, reappearing, she no less
Sheds on the flowers that round her blow
A more than sunny liveliness

and casts the creature as an emblem of peace, bringing comfort to the mind of a girl whose soldier brother is killed and buried near the family’s ancestral home: the doe acts as faithful companion, visiting the grave even of her own volition. Wordsworth’s poem - felt by the poet to be “in conception the highest work” that he produced - frames the deer in a spiritual imagery recalling its traditional mythology: throughout history, the symbolism of deer has denoted kindness, loyalty, compassion.

In the Talmud, the giant stag Keresh inhabits Bel Ilai, a magical forest, and in Oriental spirituality deer are messengers to the gods, while in South American cultures deer are taken as representational rather than playing active roles in legends. In Celtic mythology, fairy cattle were nocturnally milked by giantesses who could transform themselves into deer; the animal is also a choice of transformation for those escaping persecution. The Christian legend of Saint Hubert conveys upon the deer restorative, revolutionary powers. Drawing together historical elements of varying accuracy, the tale - first attributed to Hubert in the 15th Century having been adapted from similar stories since around the 8th - describes a son of the Duke of Aquitane who, in common with his 7th Century contemporaries, habitually hunted deer. However, when a deer he is pursuing turns to face him, revealing a crucifix between its antlers, Hubert hears a voice, which warns him: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell," whereupon the erstwhile hunstman resolves lead a peaceful life of charity and preaching.

Greek mythology features the Cerynian Hind, associated with the Goddess Artemis, and whose temporary capture is set down by the monarch Eurystheus as one of the Labours of Hercules, punishments imposed on him for the crime of having slain his own children while suffering from madness.

Nordic sagas depict four stags consuming foliage, said to reflect environmental and climactic symbolism. In 1886, English banker-scholar Benjamin Thorpe (1782 - 1870) translated the long poem Grímnismál (Sayings of Grímni), a mediaeval rendition of folkloric myth, recounting:

Harts there are also four,
which from its summits,
arch-necked, gnaw.
Dâin and Dvalin,Duneyr and Durathrô

In a rare example of the deer as antagonist, Norse mythologists portrayed a hart permanently biting into the flesh of Yggdrasil - the World Tree whose roots sustain the Nine Worlds - to add to the suffering the tree endures from sundry other natural sources in its efforts to maintain the existence of the world(s).

Eight years before The White Doe of Rylstone, the 1800 volume of Lyrical Ballads opened with the poem Hart-Leap Well, which takes its name from an actual spring at Richmond, Yorkshire, and in which Wordsworth presents a more celestial vision of a deer, albeit one burdened with the misery of “a remarkable Chase” as, shifting between past and present tense, the poet describes a solitary knight pursuing it up a hill ("at least nine roods of sheer ascent"):

The poor Hart toils along the mountain-side;

I will not stop to tell how far he fled,
Nor will I mention by what death he died;
But now the Knight beholds him lying dead.

Remarkably, though, the deer has transfixed his assailant who witnesses an extraordinary scene, as the deer appears to descend the hill in just three leaps:

Sir Walter wiped his face, and cried, "Till now
Such sight was never seen by human eyes:
Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow,
Down to the very fountain where he lies.

The creature’s life, of course, could not be saved by its miraculous abilities, for the poet has already made clear how:

Upon his side the Hart was lying stretched:
His nostril touched a spring beneath a hill,
And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched
The waters of the spring were trembling still.

Walter resolves upon witnessing this feat to commit himself to a goodlier life, or at least - in a blatant nod to Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn - "to build a Pleasure-house upon this spot."

In the poem’s second part, the hart’s death scene has ceased to be a place of joy and, the Knight long since deceased, has dwindled into grimness and decrepitude. We encounter a classic Wordsworthian technique, as the interpretation of nature is left not to a sage or scholar, but a humble shepherd, whose anthropomorphic reflections on the hart are harrowingly poignant:

What thoughts must through the creature's brain have past!
Even from the topmost stone, upon the steep,
Are but three bounds—and look, Sir, at this last—
O Master! it has been a cruel leap.

"For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race;
And in my simple mind we cannot tell
What cause the Hart might have to love this place,
And come and make his death-bed near the well.

"Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lulled by the fountain in the summer tide;
This water was perhaps the first he drank
When he had wandered from his mother's side.

It is thus the image of suffering, rather than fantastical redemption, that is most powerfully asserted as we near the poem’s conclusion. As if in consolation, we are reassured that

This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine

As the unnamed narrator insists:

The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.

American poet Jane Hirshfield shines a light on the subtle miracle of the deer, casting it as an almost transubstantiative enigma:

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer—

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

(The Supple Deer)
And in Standing Deer, she paints the creature in a more transient light, seeming to suggest the elusive, fleeting nature of happiness and human certainty:

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.

From the days of Saint Francis to the age of Heraldry, through their favourable depiction as messengers of magic in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or as the loveable Bambi in Felix Salten’s children’s stories, later screened as Disney cartoons, to their position in modern literature as woodland heroes and heroines, as in Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood, in which The Great White Stag protects the animals of the promised land of White Deer Park, deer have enjoyed respectful, affectionate, even reverential treatment. In a poem brilliantly capturing the awful realisation of death, Jon Loomis describes in chilling detail the step-by-step horrors of car and deer collision:

You're seventeen and tunnel-vision drunk,
swerving your father's Fairlane wagon home at 3:00 a.m.

Two-lane road, all curves
and dips—dark woods, a stream, a patchy acre

of teazle and grass. You don't see the deer
till they turn their heads—road full of eyeballs,

small moons glowing. You crank the wheel,
stamp both feet on the brake, skid and jolt

into the ditch. Glitter and crunch of broken glass
in your lap, deer hair drifting like dust. Your chin

and shirt are soaked—one eye half-obscured
by the cocked bridge of your nose. The car

still running, its lights angled up at the trees.
You get out. The deer lies on its side.

A doe, spinning itself around
in a frantic circle, front legs scrambling,

back legs paralyzed, dead. Making a sound—
again and again this terrible bleat.

(Deer Hit)

Aside from unintended deaths, deer have been stalked and killed in Britain since the Middle Ages, and in Wordsworth’s time the “sports” were rife. In As You Like It, Shakespeare decried the cruelty of the hunt:

A poor sequester’d stag
That from the hunter's aim hath ta’en a hurt
Did come to languish. . . . .
. . . . And the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase

Against this backdrop of disregard for the suffering of their kind, England’s deer are at threat. On the 14th November, 1843, in her beautifully written Stanzas, Emily Bronte expressed sympathy with the timid deer whose limbs are fleet with fear, while in her 1914 poem Two Kinds Of Sport, American writer Calla L Harcourt, describing a pair of hunters, reports:

They blotted out lives that were happy and good,
Blinded eyes and broke wings that delighted to soar,

They killed for mere pleasure, and crippled and tore
Regardless of aught but the hunger for blood.

Did they dream that night as they sank to their rest
How poor little Broken-Leg out in the field

All nurseless and doctorless, fever possessed,
Felt all of the torture that battlegrounds yield?

This is contrasted with the exploits of a photographer who carried a Kodak instead of a gun. Unlike the victims of the hunters, The deer that he "shot" never dreamed of his aim and Yet rich were his "trophies" and varied his "game."
Calla L. Harcourt’s photographer was clearly cut from the same cloth as contemporary Scottish poet Kenneth C Steven, author of the wonderful short poem The Deer:

Come December they click at nightfall,
When the hills are ghostly with snow,
Flint-hoofed into a town led by moonlight.

They are whittled from wood;
Sinews of strength sewn together,
Their hearing honed to catch the slightest falls in the forest,
Or know the click of a gun.

Their mouths soften the grass of gardens
Before dogs nose them, bound out barking, big-voiced,
Send them no louder than a scattering of leaves
Back into the huge night.

Sticky Pearls - Why Earthworms are Important


“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.”Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, 1881.

Synonymous with death, worms gradually devour the bodies of the dead, provide an ironic twist to the food chain, thrive on carrion.  Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs, Shakespeare’s Richard the 2nd grimly urges in the midst of war. Hamlet, musing on mortality, observes how humankind might fatten and consume other creatures only to end as the food of worms.  Your worm, he tells us, is the only emperor in diet.

For William Blake, the worm  represents corruption, something dissolute and nullifying.  In The Sick Rose, though his worm is metaphorical - no earthworm would fly, by night or any other time! - he nonetheless selects this species to destroy the rose with his dark secret love.

Sylvia Plath at least pours some balm on the depiction of worms, comparing them to sticky pearls, yet this description comes in the context of death: the worms have gathered on the body of the briefly expired Lazarus, imagined in female form.  Worms appear again, in The Fearful, this time more ambiguously referenced:

This man makes a pseudonym
And crawls behind it like a worm…
The mask increases, eats the worm…
worms in the glottal stops.

In the poem, death is mentioned three times.

Earthworms have wound their way into my own poetry. In my debut collection Little Creatures: Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, I tried to shed light on the wonders of the worm, yet, motivated by Blake, have inevitably veered towards its darker nature:


To rake the muck,
sift silt, and crawl mud-miles,
slurping sods awash with phosphate,
like rubbery trowels, creeping
through a jungle of bacteria,
these are the virtues of the worm.

Needling through nitrogen,
soft-bodying through clods,
he’ll twist himself, contortionist,
squeezing through earth's pores,
swivelling and corkscrewing
under moorland, mire,
heathland blotted by burnt cars,
broken dry-stone walls and ling fire,
ferreting through mole tunnels
and warrens, penetrating underground
beneath a battery of rain.

Amazingly, this boneless wire can regenerate,
a resurrected miracle
as twin lives germinate.
This is the wonder of the worm
his brute adaptability, and love
of all things life-giving,
his quest to poke himself into the open
at the brilliant incision of jawbones -
badger’s staple, blackbird’s catch.


Disturbed in earth
a parody of exile
hard necrotic
frosts and re-submerging
ostrich-like, at the sheer
invasive skim of metal.

In a dark oblivious
universe of loneliness,
worms mine alkaline
and acid, burrowing
to the soil's blood.

That rust-flesh vein
of plated circularity
structured interface
conceals a long digestive tube,
trawls mineral miles
scenting dark decrepitude
and feasting

on the crimson joys
of bursting birth,
consuming death:
teeth pinned on roots,
like embryonic babies
whose intestines slowly grow
and coil themselves
into life.

Throughout literature and mythology, worms have served, engagingly, as reminders of the morbid and macabre.  Vikings pictured them coiled around the Universe, biding their time before strangling the world; Norse legends filtered into the folklore of areas that fell to Viking plunder, so that in the North East, for instance, “The Worm’s Den” is a secret hollow inhabited by The Linton Worm, a serpent who nocturnally emerges to gobble crops and livestock.  Innumerable similar legends abound.  In reality, worms are neither monstrous or dangerous.  Indeed, it is hard to see how the earthworm, an umbrella bracket for an internationally profuse distribution of species of which six occur in Britain, could be seen to do anything but good.

Breathing through their skin, worms live principally below ground (the layer of earth they naturally occupy is known as “the drilosphere,”) and as they move in search of food, they aerate and break it up, easing access for roots, aiding drainage and nutrient access for roots.  They also consume soil and organic matter, excreting soluble, pH balanced nutrient-rich "casts" taken up by roots, and play a vital part in the ecosystem as prey for other animals such as birds.  They can number up to around 3 million per hectare in productive pasture, and live around ten years.  Worms interact symbiotically with bacteria, soil fungi and other organisms which form associations with plants, benefiting worms, which in turn benefit us all.  Yet these facts, seemingly self-evident today, were largely unknown until just over a century ago.

A young Charles Darwin took pains to observe earthworms in their natural environment, and returned to his youthful fascination a few years after On The Origin of Species.  This time, he performed experiments, and recorded the results.  Convinced that their turning of the soil and periodic appearances above ground must serve some beneficial purpose(s), he deposited chalk and coal stones in a field, returning to them twenty years later to assess the depths to which they had sunk, thanks to the actions of the earthworms.  At Stonehenge, he noted sunken monoliths absorbed into the Earth via the impact of earthworm castings.  Darwin received help from relatives, letters of advice from as far-a-field as India, and even soil samples from the sites of Roman ruins. 

It will be difficult to deny the probability, Darwin wrote, that every particle of earth forming the bed from which . . . old pasture land springs has passed through the intestines of worms. His research exploded the myth that worms were essentially pests, and the resulting book actually sold more copies in the author’s life time than the famous  ...Species - with a thousand copies purchased in its first few weeks of publication.  It was to be the author’s last - Darwin died the following year at the age of seventy-three.

Thanks to Darwin, the earthworm’s virtuoso role in the environment is well known and respected.  Far from being an unwelcome guest, the worm is integral to the health of our planet.  It is a great performer of aeration and soil management, and in its own peculiar, surreptitious way, a very interesting animal, like a wriggling mole, a subterranean smuggler dispensing innumerable nutrients, and in its humble, understated manner, cementing the mechanics of the soil into a functioning whole.  Without worms our eco-system would be fatally imperiled.  Or, as Darwin put it, Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.

(Images c. Michael Chinnery)

Monday, 24 December 2018

Cormorant over the Calder

Twice now I have watched a cormorant, who in my mind is the selfsame bird I see perched atop an iron bridge across the Calder, flying over the edge of Sowerby Bridge.  As the factories of yesteryear peel by, disused chimneys and abandoned mills peering over the riverbanks like thinning autumn trees, I have sat by train windows and watched its shadowy shape, like a thin black bullet, creeping through the evening skies.

I have written about cormorants here before, and have several poems about them in collections, but my sightings of the cormorant over the Calder have prompted a specific suite of three poems, with which I would like to sign off this year of 2018.


Jet thread spinning
over chimney stacks,
racks of roofs
and a river
wintry with rain,
you cruise,
a spool
of raven lace
above the skeletons of trees

As evening drags a ragged shawl
across a valley fringed in frost
you're a shadow
slicing through December cloud,
ebony heron
charcoaling a sunset-sprinkled sky.

Stygian quill
inking Northern townscapes
in a slaty scrape
of sable,
star-strewn skies
in a twisting slit
of scintillant wings .

Dark hearted one,
you float a fine line
between river
and town,
skirt a precipice of crag,
hack a mizzled scrim
of sleet, swing
beneath the brow
of a moon-crowned hill
like a memory of witchcraft.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

In Search of the Political Poem

At times I have been encouraged to write political poetry, and have sometimes done so. It is a difficult proposition because my instincts are not ideological, and, as such, the issue of political poetry is one in which I am likelier to find myself cast in the role of ever-learning observer rather than well-informed expert.  I have been inspired by much political poetry of the past, particularly from previous generations and from places other than Britain. I think back to poetry by Pauline Melville, writing about South African Apartheid, of more recent responses to injustice which I have documented on this blog - Romanian poet Ana Blandiana, Persian poet Payam Feili, persecuted and condemned to death for his sexuality in Iran before finding asylum in Israel, the Zimbabwean poets who wrote excoriatingly about life under Mugabe and their anxieties since the departure of that despot:

Burial of An Activist, by Ethel Kabwato (Zimbabwe)

They buried him today
Lips and tongue
Cut out
As if to silence
Even in death. 

I think of the poets and writers I know and have known, for whom the Russian Revolution is something to celebrate - all of them British, having no connections to Russia and having never set foot there, none of them ever open to even questioning the blinkered narratives to which they slavishly subscribe, most of which are themselves penned by British academics at safe distances from tyranny.  The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova did not escape the terror of the Revolution, whose bloody inhumanity was recorded in her poetry, written in response to first hand experience.  The poet's first husband was executed by the State's secret Police, while her son and long-time partner - poets Lev Gumilyev and Nikolay Punin - spent many years in prison due to "Anti-Soviet activity", the latter dying behind bars.  Poets like these have few counterparts in today's Britain, where most writers barely venture beyond the ivory towers of Universities.

In general, my bugbear with British - and specifically English - political poetry is its predictability. I try to be objective, and as such will give any poem a go regardless of whether I agree or disagree with its message. I've seen a few poems by far-right authors and they were truly dreadful; on the other hand by far the majority of "political poems" are left wing, and I have rarely experienced surprise from any.
This is changing a bit. But generally it seems to me that the political poet is driven first and foremost to deliver a message, and chooses to do it via poetry second. Often I hear poets at open-mics describing their work as political, when what follows are little more than ramblings against particular politicians, or diatribes against "the bankers." Most of this poetry shares certain commonalities. Subtleties of language appear not to be important.  Attention to, or conscious rejection of, symbolism, rhythm, imagery and form are exchanged for simplistic rhyme schemes or raw anger. Above all is the obvious conviction that the poet's perspective, put across without equivocation, is unquestionable. How far this is strictly "political" - ie the exploration of an ideological idea, an attempt to change others' ways of thinking, or a response to a particular policy or societal movement - and how far "poetic" rather than light verse or simply abuse, is a matter of debate.

Thinking back over some of the most political readings I have attended, the strongest have come from poets born outside of the UK, relating their experiences of growing up in areas of conflict, and the effects this has had on them.  British political poetry, on the other hand, seems often to be about "issues" rather than experiences or memories, or is moulded around group identity, and it has often seemed to me while listening that what is being delivered is surely more along the lines of a poorly structured essay or a pitch at Speaker's Corner than a "poem" in any recognizable sense. The most memorable thing about many is precisely that their content tends not to be memorable.  The shouting of anarchists, the woman who ranted about Syria, urging the audience to join in chants expressing support for one side or another of that state's interminable civil war, without any background information on the conflict or explanations of why we should take sides; the foul-mouthed tirades against public figures or, conversely, the vague celebrations of  "The People," or "Our NHS," - little of this yields any concrete memories in my own mind of actual lines and phrases, of linguistic experimentation, questions, words.

 The Poet Must Die, by Don Mattera, 1983 (South Africa)

The poet must die
His murmuring threatens their survival
His breath could start the revolution;
He must be destroyed.

Ban him.
Send him to the Island
Call the firing squad.
But remember to wipe his blood
From the wall.
Then destroy the wall
Crush the house 
Kill the neighbours.

If their lies are to survive
The poet must die.

Artists in North Korea or Iran, like their predecessors in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, face abuse, imprisonment and even death, for their words.  Here, we feel brave attacking Trump, Farage etc, when no harm and only acclaim will result. If only more poets, comedians, and journalists were more honest about this. Anna Akhmatova's long poem The Requiem, a memorial for those murdered in the Stalinist terror, was considered by its author to be too dangerous to publish until Stalin's death in 1953. I simply cannot imagine any poet in Britain trembling at the thought of Theresa May's reaction to their poems poking fun of her Brexit deal or her dancing.

I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I've learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That's why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall

(From Requiem, by Anna Akhmatova).

I remember some ago a poet I know to read a piece he had written "about the rise of a certain political party," and as he said these words, audiences would murmur knowingly - the whole affair a hammed up delusion that they were all uniting in something subversive, as if by naming the party they would be risking getting into bother. Why could he not have said it was about Ukip? What did he actually think would happen?

The response of the poetic populi to the vexing question Britain's EU Referendum was understandably combustible.  My gripe is not that poets lamented the results, but more that there seems to be a desperation in poetic circles to somehow translate everything that has happened into easily comprehensible terms, often with contradictory results - in their poems, essays, twitter feeds and open mic intro's I find poets simultaneously savaging those enacting Brexit while canonizing Jeremy Corbyn, even though the latter is very much one of the former. 
But without wanting to rehash the arguments themselves, how are poets to respond to such societally seismic events?
The Referendum was bread and butter for the politically inclined, but destabilizing and ruinous for many of us on the sidelines, or who, thanks in part to our idealistic or gullible natures, became putty in the hands of bigots and extremists. We found ourselves at the mercy of a  political class unable to resolve their ideological dilemmas, and handing the task over to an unprepared electorate, who in spite of the challenges, stresses and responsibilities upon our shoulders in our daily lives, were expected to cast deciding votes on an issue of imperceptible complexity, without the time, and certainly the payment, granted to the MP's we elect to manage these affairs - the supposed experts in the field. 
So how can I articulate the predicament of having made the agonizing decision to vote Leave, for reasons of Internationalism, animal welfare and the impact of EU policies on the developing world, yet supporting membership for the same reasons, regretting it, equally torn in different directions? How do you put into words the despair, the indecision, the horror at violence against ethnic minorities, the disgust at the ageist abuse and hatred that the aftermath has normalized? There were some unexpected positives to be taken from my own experiences, not least my involvement with the charity Migrant Help, but none of this lends its self for me to anything translatable as poetry.  Instead, the situation seems turgid, depressing, and confusing. We are living in a society where simple solutions are offered for insoluble problems. When did we become divided into two tribes, "Leavers" and "Remainers"?   These identities are imposed on us in attempts to boil down decades' worth of multi-stranded philosophical debates, in which each possible outcome evinces a diversity of pro's and cons.  How many people, proudly sporting the stripes of one or the other of these persuasions, has professional experience of the European Union?  Has read and understood the various EU treaties?  How many have genuinely put themselves in the position of those on the perceived other side, or admitted the validity of a countervailing claim?  Of course, expecting poets to incorporate such considerations into their work is to miss the point: contemporary British political poetry relies on generalities and partiality, not on nuanced micro-analysis, or, despite the frequent pretensions to the contrary, on empathy across dividing lines.
Although undertaken for relatively honourable reasons, who now can fail to see that the decision to hold a Referendum will go down as one of the greatest mistakes in British history, one that has divided families, wrecked relationships, disrupted communities and workplaces - and that it will not end there? Racism in the debate cuts both ways - Little Englander Nationalists with narrow protectionist instincts, and those who proclaim they are "proudly European" as if this dictates that a federal Union should be established in accordance with their selected identity.  I am sick of hearing people debate if leaving the EU will result in more non-EU "migrants" as if this were a bad thing in its self.   A "migrant" is a human being and, notwithstanding security considerations etc, all should have equal rights of movement whether EU citizens, Africans, Asians or anyone else - regardless of whether we depart.
Now we have been dragged down the Referendum route, it probably make sense to  hold one every five or ten years. But two things are for sure: whatever the results of the "Peoples' Vote," the losing side will demand a re-run; and to pitch the vote in binary, In/Out terms may well prove catastrophic in terms of the remaining social fabric of this country.

Now how do you get all that into a poem - and who the Devil would wish to?!

How do you get the sense of feeling at once depressed by the anti-semitism of Labour - how can I get behind a party who so cravenly capitulated to a tainted and untrustworthy leader they had previously fought tooth and nail to get rid of? - or the idea that, in contrast to a seeming majority of poets who are utterly convinced of their own viewpoint, that you simply have no idea of what solutions may be offered to Britain's current political malaise, into poetry that is emotionally and intellectually challenging, satisfying or stimulating?  How to approach our current impasse and dreadful dearth of political wisdom in a way that is not alienating, but cathartic, both to the writer, and the reader?

As I write, the twittersphere is exploding with hysterical responses to  Brexit, the Middle East, or the American President's latest outbursts.  Everyone writes with such conviction, unable to spot the contradictions in their own assertions. Everyone seems to have a crystal ball with which to point to Utopian or Doomsday scenarios, and is ready to subject anyone who disagrees to personal abuse.  Britain is breaking up before our eyes, its institutions battle-scarred, its politicians fractious and underwhelming. At the very point where empathy is needed, unity and healing bitterly overdue, we have hatred, fear and despair.  Perhaps the reason I have failed to make some sort of sense out of all this through the medium of poetry is that I simply do not have any answers or suggestions.  To me, the paths ahead seem strewn with bigotry, each proposal distorted by the war-cry of the crowd.  Empathizing with both sides, I am damned by both.  Disbelieving each, I am comforted by neither. Unable to join the swelling ranks of the determined, I drift like flotsam on a cold, unpredictable sea.  I face the past with a mixture of sorrowful yearning and deep regret; the present with bewilderment; the future with foreboding. Now, at close to midnight, I find I have written my much sought for, long evasive, political poem:

Britain, 2018:
Nobody knows what the Hell is going on.
Everybody knows they're right.

Rediscovered poetry of canals

Resurrected from storage, having been featured in an exhibition years ago in Sowerby Bridge, the following poems all relate to the canal which features in much of my life.  My flat overlooks the Rochdale Canal, and its sights and sound are regular fixtures in my days. The rediscovery of these poems has been a bittersweet experience, as most were written early in my Calder Valley days, lonely and unhappy times, and yet a period of time much simpler than now, long before our country was wounded by tormenting divisions over Brexit and the current climate of hatred and confusion which characterises this fractured land:

January dusk; 
ducks huddle upon waters
bounced on by a cavalcade of rain.


 My overriding interest was in the wildlife found on and around the canal:

Midnight, and a daggering black shape of wings
like a looming W appears
in shadow over moon-blue water;
seconds later and its brooding form
is overhead, and floating
into tar-black distance.

Herons, which I often see traversing the watery worlds of the canal and the Rivers Calder and Ryburn, would come to dominate my canal poetry, and in one rediscovery I notice the transience and mirage-like manner in which I seem to paint them:

At a distance on this Sunday afternoon,
you're eyebrow-fine in river mist,
cut sharp and almost one-dimensional;

as though your wafer-thinness
were a cloak
a winter pelt,
a wraithlike sillhouette,
a flickered implication.

I note brief, elegiac glimpses of the canal from winter's afternoons:

Frost-fog settles over locks
hinging the horizon like bent birches

and overviews of the canal network as it seemed to me in those early days of close proximity:

Like tunnels burrowed by enterprising gangs
of weasels, voles, or lithe, subsurface predators,
they split and sub-divide, 
a grid of burrowed waterscapes
as if the veins of earth had somehow opened up.

And this, written from my window as the scarlet majesty of a June evening blended into a starlit fantasia of warm summer rain, silvery water, and much sought, rare calm:

Rain subsides,
rain falls,
rain blends on a sky-like surface,
fishes glittering below;
ducks sail gently by.

Evening sun glows gently over the canal.

We are very lucky to live on this beautiful planet.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Sluggish Surprise ... Rediscovered Poems

Although I have lived in my current flat for nearly four years, I have never really fully "unpacked", and find myself still sifting through boxes and bags of disparate books, notepads and scribblings, sometimes containing long-forgotten poetry.  I was sorting through my kitchen recently when I came across a sequence of haiku-like poems all revolving around one particular subject:

On my finger 
the chill of slug, 
summer has begun

The period was the summer of 2010, when I was collating, and still writing, the poems which would go into my 2013 collection Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, and the scene, as I recall, was the University of Manchester, where I was sequestered for the day at a training course for my then job at the Leeds Music Library, which perhaps explains the imagery in the first piece:

Black keys on the piano 
of our garden, 
the speechless slugs


While this poem, with its rather racy evocations of gastropodal romance, could almost have been taken from my poem Slug Sex, from Little Creatures:

on the rockery - 
squiggly antennae twitch 

I reproduce the remainder below, in the sequential order into which they have assembled themselves in my mind, the poems being unlikely to find sufficient thematic parity with any other group to warrant their inclusion in a future collection.   
The night light beams 
upon a concrete multiplicity 
of slugs and snails

Like congealing cigars 
the slugs, seed eyes 
illume the night

By the toadflax 
the solitary slug - 
do you feel lonely?

Streaking the path 
in slimy reminders, 
nocturnal mollusc