Monday, 27 May 2019

Writer's Block - Struggling Under the Cloud of Corbyn

Since June 2017, I have felt disconnected from the UK poetry scene. My own area is becoming more extreme politically, and this is often reflected in the poetry arena. At one time I simply tolerated all political expression in the name of free speech, but over the last couple of years it's got to the stage where the world of open mics and readings feels a one-sided environment, so I don't enjoy many events and tend to stay away.

On the morning of 9th June 2017, I am dumbfounded that so many British voters have chosen to endorse a party led by a man who had befriended terrorists, and whose political machine is engineered by self-confessed Stalinists. I know that many did so in spite of Jeremy Corbyn, some individual candidates having even gone so far as to have disowned their party leader.  But more of a kick in the stomach is the endless reel of triumphant social media posts from friends, many from within the world of poetry, celebrating Labour's almost-victory and citing Corbyn as their reason for voting - splashing grinning selfies, or, worse, supposedly profound philosophical quotes and statements in celebration of their hero's unexpected surge.  Friends who had previously scoffed at the Labour Party's current brand of politics have become, stretched on the unrelenting rack of peer pressure, devoted fans.

Over the succeeding months, swathes of society, including many people who had seemed middle-of-the-road, grow increasingly commited to the Hard Left, and are seemingly indifferent to the alienation of the Jewish community.  Trying to agree to differ, I find myself frozen out by several Corbyn Converts, my reservations met with derision.  An editor ceases to reply to my letters. My observations on online groups are met with scorn. A poet I know produces a tweet mocking concerns over Corbyn's stance on terrorists. Other poets use Theresa May's decision to unite with the DUP as a platform for suggesting fears over Corbyn's friendships with terrorists are unfounded, as if professional cooperation, born of political necessity, with a hard right but democratically legitimate political party is comparable to an obscure backbencher going out of his way to invite rabid Jew-haters who impose the death penalty for homosexuality, and whose publicly, proudly, expressed wish is the obliteration of "the Jews," and the world's only Jewish state, to Parliament. All of this is done with apparent sincerity and moral certitude.
At a reading in late 2017, the conversation between poems turns to Antisemitism in the Labour Party - specifially, how news of this might be dismissed as mere smears.  When I offer my own view, I am greeted by a sour expression, a tut, and an abrupt turn away, my words too true, and the truths I offer too disturbing to the ears of one octogenarian Corbynite, indisposed to hear a single word of criticism levelled at the Dear Leader.

Slowly, the poetry circuit grows more and more homogenous in its Corbynmania. A book is published in his honour.  Mild-eyed, allotmenteering Guardian readers, and quaint former-fencesitters, now explode with gushing admiration for the Magic Grandpa, while the more media-savvy post pictures of Corbyn riding unicorns, or mocked up as a Star Wars hero. One poet I once worked with posts that Corbyn is "a groovy Socialist grandad." Some take to Twitter, where they post foul-mouthed blasts of support; others hear my concerns with thinly veiled boredom. At a reading in Manchester, a man whines out a badly written poem dripping in cliche, and seeming to last for about three and a half hours, devoted to lionizing Corbyn in rhyming couplets; his party are routinely praised at open mics.  Often I try to pluck up the courage to redress the balance and deliver some counterblast against, say, Corbyn's denial of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, or his being paid by the Iranian regime which hangs men for the "crime" of being gay.  Instead, I sink into my seat time after time, and swish a flat drink around my glass. Never one to avoid a poet's work due to their politics, I nonetheless find myself less and less interested in the products of any brain fixated on such a divisive crusade as that being wrought by Corbyn and his fanatical associates - including those who encourage violence against politicians with whom they disagree. Not wishing to deflate anybody else's free expression, I let the saccharine sycophancy wash over me, again and again, until finally I have enough and, not wanting to be associated with it, bow out of the scene.

I hear of similar problems overseas. A poet in los Angeles tells me how, at reading after reading, multiple poets will stand up and rubbish the idea of Antisemitism - alleging that in today's society it no longer exists, accusing those who suffer it of fabrication. I have stopped appearing at poetry readings, she says.  Safety must come first.  I agree - but the tragedy is as symbolic as it is personal.  And it is a story I have heard again and again, in different variations.  As extremism increases, across the world of poetry, good, valuable voices are being slowly lost, as, like some demented gardener, the tide of political purity goes weeding out the differently opinionated, the diverse, the Jewish. I think back to events I've attended over the previous few years, where comperes literally called for those of particular political persuasions to leave, or when I sat in shock as speakers urged the audience to boycott specific venues or events because people performing there have previously appeared in Israel. Such racism is no longer restricted to dodgy pubs and dark chatrooms.  It has been given implied license via the rise of Corbyn's mob, and shows no sign of abating.

Absence can dull the sting of disaffection, and after a year or so of restricted activity, due in no small part to a wish for privacy following the loss of my father, I make short strides back into my former hinterlands. Attempting to recalibrate my poetic ventures, I head onto social media, creating facebook pages on which to promote the literary initiatives I have been quietly plotting. Briefly thinking of adding friends, I aim instinctively for the profiles of poets, only to discover a tidal wave of bile and unsubstantiated claims, all politically motivated, spewed on the pages of people I had previously liked, admired, trusted.  Some of the most alarming were:

Re-postings of discredited allegations about the funding of political parties - specifically, claiming that Change UK were being paid "by Israel."

A post rubbishing the apparent use of chemical weapons by Syria's President Assad, insisting that the impression of his wrongdoing might be regarded purely as an American plot.

Accusations that reports - and thousands of videos and photographs - of Venezualan protests agaist that country's autocratic, and Corbyn-supported, leader, were faked.

The assertion that Zionism goes against the tenets of Judaism - from someone with no connections to Jewishness or Judaism whatsoever.

Repetitions of proven lies about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with at least one case of invoking the Blood Libel.

Around this time, I become aware of a push by the local Liberal Democrats to draw attention to a Labour councillor who has shared Holocaust-denying facebook posts, and others of a similarly stomach-churning nature, and find that this man is about to be invested as our area's Mayor. I contact the Lib Dems, and we re-boot their campaign, this time it is successful and the Labour Party rescind the Mayoral nomination (though retain the councillor's services and include him in promotional party videos), but on confiding in Corbyn-supporting poet friends, I find their response is a collective shrugging of the shoulders. Only one shows (fleeting) concern, and in all other cases I find that yet again the emails dry up, the texts disintegrate, the empathy is nonexistent.

I ought not to have been surpised at this cold-shouldering. Such people stood proudly by their leader throughout the scandal of Wreathgate - when he was pictured holding a commemorative wreath for Jew-killing terrorists - a revelation which would shake the foundations of any normal person's faith, but seemed to matter not a jot to the loud-mouthed marchers, student activists, self-satisfied poets, celebs desperate to be relevant, dated rock stars or even the achingly plain "everyday folk" who had flocked to worship at the Church of Corbyn, often without being able to articulate quite why.  I don't believe one should abandon strongly-held beliefs purely due to the attitudes of others. But for me, news of EU nationals attacked in London in the aftermath of the EU Referendum was a more than sufficient final straw to jolt me from my former pro-Leave stance. No matter the pro's and cons, I reasoned, no position on the EU is worth the causing, however inadvertent, of pain and fear to others.  I don't expect every Brexiteer to follow suit, but we ought at least to reflect on how the promotion of goals which seem innocent to us, might affect the lives and safety of others. Such considerations seem to play no part in the minds of Corbyn's fans.  We had only three months to choose a side in the Referendum.  They have had more thn three years to do due diligence on Corbyn. However, the first signs that the cult may have at last begun to crumble emerge this week, with poor reults for Labour in the European elections. No sooner has the Brexit penny begun to finally drop for them also, than some of those who had deified the curmudgeonly Corbyn as "the first politician I've ever believed in," are throwing their toys out of the pram, and can be seen today proclaiming online that "Corbyn Must Go!" and echoing half-hearted calls from some of the party leader's beleagured internal foes for a second Referendum. Predictably, the result is mounting venom, and the imminent internicine struggles are not going to be pretty, as thousands of embittered people begin to turn on one another, leaving the rest of us, who foresaw this grotesque eventuality years ago, bewildered and repelled.   

Meanwhile, my own position remains one of isolation.  The natural response to such political turmoil is political poetry, but I can't write this, and so spend hours staring blankly at the laptop screen, the days drifting by.  All enthusiasm for normal pleasures and interests is sucked out of me, and I am in the Calder Valley in body, but not in mind, or spirit.  Nor will any vestige of normality be miraculously resumed when Corbyn inevitably resigns.  To pin our discontent on the career of one individual is inaccurate and unfair: an entire new political culture has been created similar in part to its anti-Western Soviet forerunners but embodying also many new-fangled attributes born of support for violent movements, hatred for the state of Israel, intolerance of constructive criticism, and a willingness to throw inconvenient minorities under the bus in order to help their leader into Number 10.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Poem about Coughing

Currently suffering what I would gladly bet is the single worst sore throat ever endured in the entire history of humanity, I am taking refuge in a number of remedies, some old favourites, some kindly suggested by others, and trying to shake off the lag of lack of sleep, brought about by endless rounds of coughing.

At present my throat feels as if I had recently swallowed a bag of burning nails, and in the midst of these otolaryngological horrors, my mind is not especially attuned to the writing of poetry.  However, I have dug out an as-yet unpublished laryngeal lament from a year or so ago, dedicated not so much to the wider scourge of sore throats, but to the simple, old-fashioned cough.  It pretty much sums up all I have to say on this contentious subject, and I submit it below in solidarity with all others choking under the yoke of microbial misery:


Scurrying hubbub
of rough, gritty bugs,
gruff grubs, bristle-barbed,
scraping chin's interior
with fluff-stuffed bushy brushes,
scratching skin and writhing
in a wriggling din of tickling -
noxious mob microbial!
Grisly gang, gut-tugging -
croak-provoking crew
of beserk bordotella,
and belligerent, beserker germs!

Bacterial brigade, withdraw your troops,
retreat into the recess of the throat's
dark tunnels, fade into a vortex
of syrups, dissolve like salt in snow -
most mendacious mouth-mauler,
irksome irritant, throbbing, throat-throttling thug - 

I've tried to be polite but look:
for pity's sake, just sling yer 'ook!

Travelling Late - Two Poems About Uncomfortable Train Journeys

Over the past few weeks, I've had reason to commute home from Leeds. This in its self is nothing new - indeed, more hours of mine have been spent on trains, and quite a few of them heading in and out of Leeds City Station - than almost anywhere else on earth. Travelling to or from the city of one's birth is always a reflective experience.  About ten years ago, at a time when I was again living in that city, I wrote this poem drawing on my thoughts on an outbound journey:


The old bridge with its large iron rails like big brackets
deep enough to hide between is gone.

My grandma’s flats are still stacked up
like rows of soldiers trenched and battle scarred.

Gentrification hasn’t reached this far
but further on through city streets the station beckons me -

and across the tracks shuttling northwards or to London
and its otherworldly newness, it’s panorama meets the eye:

glossy offices and clocks, rockeries of hills, a weedy rail-side
lurching out to slip roads and the motorway,

industrial estates, and the dictatorial brow of Leeds Parish Church,
bearing on us like the glare of some Victorian Headmaster.

The city  glowers at me from behind, in all directions,
and even straight ahead there are reflections.

The poem above describes an afternoon or early evening journey.  More recently, my interactions with the station have been nocturnal, often on the later trains out of the city.  This, as ever, has been a demoralizing experience, and often quite a dangerous one.  Saturday trains are not much fun these days, and by the time it gets to five or six o' clock you can be sure that every carriage will be stuffed to the brim with bellicose drinkers, determined to prove they are enjoying themselves.  The guards stay away, the conductors give them a wide berth and remain secluded in their cabins - strongly implying that payment for travel is voluntary.  As the night wears on, the greater the hubbub and the more uncivilised the train becomes.  Without exception, the worst offenders - the noisiest, most obnoxious of all - are those within the 50-65 age bracket.   The young, either priced out of partying, or possessed of better manners, are scarcely present, and where they are, rarely compete with their belligerent seniors in terms of yobbishness. The emergence of this newly predominant, thrusting class of drinker has not come about overnight.  These middle-aged delinquents and elderly Hell-raisers did not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to wreak havoc on the nation's trains.  They are, rather, the remnants of their own younger generation's city-going boozers. The same folk who, twenty or thirty years ago, propped up the bars of Yates' and The Feast and Firkin, never stopped, so that those who once painted the town red with Lambrini and Skol, are now simply painting it grey.

As the train juts into Leeds, it is filled with abrasive packs of short-shirted blokes hoarsely bellowing out-of-tune chants, communicating in strange, monosyllabic and monotonous dialects unknown to human tongue.  Like British Donald Trumps, confidence inflated by that bombastic narcissist's ascent to power and the fake legitimacy this ascribes to a Stone Age code of conduct that had, for a time, seemed buried in the recent past, they hold court, with burning red faces and bulging checked shirts.  With roaring football chants and desperate grins, they ache for the illusion of belonging and contentment, shrieking and guffawing sadly and with thinly concealed bitterness, as if as much to persuade themselves as anybody else that this brief escape from the flatness of their lives really has served to fill the holes within them.  Leaving town, and burrowing into the dim-lit decay of Armley, Bramley, miles of estates punctuated by scrubland and the deserted bathos of empty car-parks and abandoned forecourts, the trains are even rowdier - wobbling stages for the final acts of grotesque comedies played out by lonely, fat and balding bigots embodying every embarrassment of Britain's past, scared and uncertain of its future.  These drunken trundles back to the terraced eternities of Wortley or the battered backstreets of Bradford, are their only chance to shine - time capsules where casual racism is the norm, where sexist jibes and language banished from the modern workplace might be met with furious but warm-spirited ripostes from equally inebriated middle-aged women.  These tired purveyors of old jokes, and their brash female counterparts, seething with venemous tongues and unleashing tirades of invective as the bottled-up frustrations of the decades come tumbling, spluttering and cursing from their mouths, rule the roost - subject all and sundry to their transportational imperialism, and no doubt in the morning, deadened with hangovers, have completely forgotten the vast majority of what was said and done.  They will join workplace jeers about "disruptive teenagers" or "bloody immigrants,"  drowning once more in the myopic muddle of Daily Mails and the maudlin logic of the tap room.

A couple of years ago I wrote the poem below, and its content could easily be applied to my more recent experiences of the late train out of Leeds.


Night-encircled spidergram
of steel, wires, concrete gangplanks
stretched between rails
which look like strips of DNA,

this box of blackness
jazzily sashed
with electric light
rumbles, rocks, erupts
into riots of testosterone,
walkways throttled by stampeding feet,
and in a jungled brawling of discord
revisits Babel on a city's spew -
bulbous lubbers
stumbling on board,
stinking of KFC,
bellies full of booze,
as if whatever thoughts
coagulating in those thick, brick brains
can only dribble out in grunted spit or beery guffaws.

All meaning has been neutered,
individual opinion shredded,
on this swamp of a train
where every man's reduced
to slumped and muggle-headed
slanging bouts, 

each carriage drips in death's greased grime
as the stench of cheap-fried flesh
permeates like a disease.

We stumble, judder out of town
through scrawls of streetlamps,
beetle abyss-bound
into a morbid vortex of thick black,
a midnight etched in threads of passing trains
as bars of light meet bars of light
and fizzle fleetingly through windows
framing dark expanses of post-urban waste,
empty pitches,
dim-lit stations,
cemeteries whose thin grey graves are filed
like tax returns or love letters,
a cold and lonely coffin of a world
within whose shadowy, ill-lit peace
I begin to slowly feel at home.

Congratulations, Simon

I'm not that interested in the Poet Laureatship concept but must say I support the appointment of Simon Armitage to the role - indeed it is one I have been predicting for years!  His poetry manages to be accessible yet expertly crafted, often nuanced and yet quietly relevant, and few practitioners have brought poetry into communities as inclusively & successfully as Simon Armitage.  I think his work has exactly the right balance of accessible appeal and a background in community arts for the job, with a quality and distinctiveness to his writing which distinguishes him from simply issue-driven poets.  Two alternative front-runners for the role would, in my estimation, have been Lemn Sissay and Kate Tempet - however, Armitage is more of a known name beyond poetry and I can see either or both of these poets maybe getting the role down the line.

I met Simon Armitage twice in the late 1990's, and my "claim to fame" is having been present when he was comissioned to write the thousand-line, book-length poem Killing Time for the Millennium Dome - my former English teacher was the woman who commissioned him - but my defining memory is of a reading in Leeds just before Christmas, 1999, at the long-since defunct Borders bookshop.  The disjointed excerpts seemed a travelogue of sociology - society as monster, gobbling its voracious way through news cycles of wars, greed, famines, and environmental entropy, with a section refering to a recently famous hot air balloon expedition:

We could do worse,
couldn't we, than balloon? Could do worse than peel
            the skin from the soul
and dither and drift in the miles of airspace between heaven
            and Earth, could do worse
than quit the sink estates and the island tax-havens,
            look down cartographically
on town and country, golf blight and deforestation,
            the veins and arteries of roads,
the blood-clots of traffic lights and service stations.
            Could do worse, surely,
than clink glasses, balloonist to balloonist, mid-air,
            over invisible borders,
over East Timor, Rwanda, Eritrea,
            catch the breeze
and exchange personal gifts as tokens of good fortune,
            thrown basket to basket. 

Behind him, the black December sky was pricked by the glitter of Christmas decorations, and the window loomed down onto the city streets as if we were ourselves aloft in the balloon, looking over a world aching to be healed, and the moment seemed to distill, in its summing up of a thousand years of history, the brief and now all-but forgotten sense of resolution - world weary but optimistic - shyly, audiaciously, daring to emerge as a kind of collective hopefulness as the old century - and indeed Millennium - merged into the new. The emotion was palpable, the intimacy between reader and audience cementing a tangible unity.  I left the bookshop with the profound conviction that as we soared towards a dizzying new age, humanity, to coin the cliche of innumerable school reports, "could do better"- and that we would.

I wonder what direction Simon Armitage's work will take now that he is Laureate?  Given his much documented love of popular music and background in community literary endeavours, I can imagine we may be seeing quite a few link-ups between those areas and poetry, in live settings.  And as he is based in Yorkshire, this can only be a good thing in terms of exposure for the region.

One of my favourite works of Simon Armitage is his 2012 Stanza Stones anthology - produced for the Ilkley Literary Festival and featuring a plethora of poems by teenagers and based on a project in which poems were carved onto rocks among the dramatic landscapes of the South Pennines.  Being a South Pennines resident, I was delighted to notice that one of Armitage's contributions gives praise to that most unsung, and ever-present, heroes of our district - the rain.  It is hardly surprising, as the poet hails from Marsden, near Huddersfield, one of the rainiest parts of Britain. He has lived in Huddersfield for many years, and it was in that understated Yorkshire town that I was myself living at the time of the Killing Time reading.  Several of us would crowd into a cafe in the town's Byram Arcade, eager for a glimpse of one of the UK's most notable poets - but never catching one. At the time I was struck by how soaking wet Huddersfield was - in the winter of 2000, the town recorded a downfall of 99mm, compared to only 33 in Leeds - but having lived in nearby Sowerby Bridge for over 7 years, I can now wholly endorse and celebrate Armitage's cloud-pollen, / grain of the heavens, just as I celebrate this timely and exciting new appointment.

From Rain 

Be glad
of thse freshwater tears,
each pearled droplet
some salty old sea-bullet
air-lifted out of the waves,
then laundered and sieved,
recast as a soft bead
and returned.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Potential PM Praises Antisemitic Book

If the last few years or so have taught us a couple of things, it is surely that the phrase "life-long anti-racist" will never quite have the same ring to it again, and that nothing should surprise us from the Labour Party.   However, on first seeing news of that party's latest scandal trickling over Twitter late last night, I genuinely thought it must be the result of some sort bizarre misunderstanding. But it turned out to be true: the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had been found to have been the author of a foreword to a 2011 reprint of the 1902 book Imperialism, by the economist John Atkinson Hobson - a book he describes as "brilliant," and "a great tome," yet one whose central argument is underpinned by antisemitism.  I confess I had never read Hobson before this sorry affair - nor, I imagine, had many of the book's (or Corbyn's) supporters or detractors - but the reading I have done since has left me sick to my stomach.  Though, considering that this is a man who happily took £20,000 to present programmes on Iranian State tv (whose regime was pledging to annihilate the world's only Jewish state and hanging people for the crime of being gay) and the calibre of people he has openly supported in the past, it should hardly have come as a surprise that the Labour leader would endorse this book.

The initial responses from the JC fanbase were typically sycophantic and evasive, and almost all to the effect that, although he praised the book, and provided its foreword, Jeremy had probably not actually read it, or understood it, and in all probability knew nothing of its author's views.  This ridiculous defence soon collapsed with the further revelation that he had, in fact, presented a talk on the book for the London Socialist Historians group in December 2010.

Of course, there is an argument that the prejudiced attitudes of yesteryear might be perceived within the context of their time, a claim for which I have some time - but this ignores that Corbyn, far from holding the economists of the early 20th Century to a lower moral standard than today's, can be highly critical of colonial attitudes when it suits. He cites Hobson's railing against the commercial interest that fuel the role of the popular press with imperial might that then lead on to racist cariacatures of African and Asian peoples...and argues that the way in which the British press portrayed Gandhi in the 1930's, or Kenyatta in the 1950's, or, indeed, Argentina's soldiers and sailors in the 1980's, shows that the tricks have not changed dramatically. But his concern ebbs away when the cariacature in question pertains to men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience (and are) in a unique position to manipulate the policy of nations.

This antisemitic tone leads into an even more blatant slab of cliche, reading almost like something out of the Victor Orban book of conspiracy theories:

Does anyone seriously suppose that  a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a state loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?

Those who defend Corbyn by pleading that his foreword does not imply agreement with all the author's views miss the point.  There seems to be some (willing?) confusion as to why the foreword is so troubling.  The problem is not in celebrating the writings, or extolling the ideas, of an economist who also happened to be an antisemite, but in specifically endorsing a text whose central arguments appear to be defined by it.

There is a tiresome discussion which does the rounds in poetry circles every now and then, usually when poets have run out of other things to talk about, in which they furrow their brows and bite their nails over the rights and wrongs of enjoying poetry written by people who weren't very nice.
Its an unpopular view these days, especially in academic circles, where textual objectivity is taken almost as an article of faith, and the existence of authors almost seen as an inconvenience, but I am prone to intepret a text with at least one eye on the significance of the author's life and background. I find it can be refreshing and interesting to sample the different worldviews of diverse ranges of people.  This does not imply endorsement or agreement. 
There is a world of difference between, for example, providing a scholarly analysis into, a celebration, or indeed a foreword to, the works of TS Eliot, whose poetry in so far as it was influenced by his politics, betrays this influence elliptically or subconsciously, or even that of a poet such as unrepentant antisemite Ezra Pound, and choosing to ignore or acknowledge the unpleasant attitudes these poets, and endorsing a work which itself promotes antisemitism.  I would find it impossible to provide any sort of sympathetic, or even objective, analysis of a book of poems by, for sake of argument, Nick Griffin.  I should feel categorically unable to lend my time in any way to boosting the ego, bank balance or intellectual esteem of such a racist.  However, it would still be possible to argue the case for doing so provided the reviewer were satisfied that the poetry in question did not promote the kind of political message with which its author was usually associated.  As unpalatable as I would consider such an excercise to be, it may be posited that author and text were separate, seperated, entities.  What would be morally indefensible would be a promotion of a book of poems whose theme and message purported hate, especially if failing to draw attention to any offending passages - since it is impossible to do so without, by definition, promoting that hate, given that it serves as the bedrock of the book's thematic hub.  The views of an economist who believes in a worldwide, warmongering conspiracy engineered by one particular race, cannot but be shaped by this warped belief.

I am aghast that some intelligent people seem unable to grasp this. Those taking to twitter to demand that, if we are to condemn Corbyn for endorsing Hobson's hate, we must remove Oliver Twist from schools for its depiction of a Jew, or the whataboutery merchants pointing out that figures from the Left, Right and Centre have referenced Hobson and quoted from his works, seem to be deliberately avoiding the fact that Corbyn's foreword does not seek to contextualize the economist, or to distance himself from Hobson's unpleasant views. As I have stated, I have some time for the idea of accepting the views of an author within historical context.  Corbyn does not - his foreword for Hobson explicitly draws critical attention to contemporaneous stereotyping. 
The language Hobson uses to describe the Jews (the above quotations are taken from a chapter entitled The Economic Parasites of Imperialism) is troubling, and it is not suprising that the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has written to Jeremy Corbyn to request an explanation as to why he would endorse it. His party are under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the only party to have been so other than the openly fascist BNP.  I am among those for whom the Labour Party, even when I did not vote for them (the last time I did was 2015), were generally considered as a bastion against racism, and a general force for good. My own father was briefly a party member in the 60's.  But the last few years have altered everything.  Even in my own back yard, antisemitism from the party has reared its head - culminating in the forced resignation of a mayoral candidate who had posted antisemitic conspiracy theories blaming Israel for 9/11, accusing "the Rothschilds" of backing ISIS, and denying the Holocaust.  Elements of the local poetry circuit have become a kind of extended Corbyn fan club, leaving me feeling disconnected and unwelcome in my own town. It is, however, surely wrong to pin this phenomenon squarely on one man - it is an endemic, party-specific problem, and one which shows no sign of abating.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

This April Moon

The following poem was written five years ago, but this evening I was inspired to post it here on looking at the crescent moon above Sowerby Bridge.
The poem appears in my colletion Dove, Deferred, which has just been submitted to a publisher.


This April moon's a dandelion clock
scattering silver seeds;
spilt vial
of lucent mead.

This April moon's an owl's
reflected eye,
chalk circle
peering over frost-flossed moors
hardening in sky like solid ice,
a totem, frozen
with the pain of memory,
a dove, deferred.

This moon, this Ancient rock,
water-woven and through circled thumb
and forefinger,
psalm's size,
tombstone pinned against unravelling skies,
scene-setter for love or loss,
night's flag or morning's
cool refracted vestibule of light,
lunacy no reason can diffuse,
or a newly hatching egg - you choose.

Monday, 8 April 2019


On my recent trip to County Down , I fell asleep most nights to the rather grumpy serenade of rooks, who seemed to camp en-masse among the birches just outside the windows of the bautiful cottage I was staying in.  After a while, one got used to this nightly bantering, it was actually quite therapeutic, and my suggestion in the poem that the sound persisted all through the night is a slight exaggeration, but there was definitely a sense of something going on that was external to the human experience, like the evidence of another world, another community, going about its business while the human world was sleeping.


All through the night
they chuckle and croak,
clogging the birches,
clacking through the black

like pint-sized cows,
their throaty moos
ripple through the silence
as a winter midnight shivers
beneath the sooty hug
of hulking mountains,
outlines etched crow-black
against star-prickled sky.

From time to time
I'll see one,
hanging about in the late afternoon,
perched on a branch
with a twig clamped in its mouth,
straggler, raggedly gatheringcast-offs, scraps,
a sad mountebank,
a  happy goth,
or one of those lost looking, lonely souls
who know that life begins at night.

A poem about Downpatrick, County Down

This poem recalls my initial impressions of the town of Downpatrick, County Down, which I visited on St Patrick's Day this year.  As the burial place of St Patrick, it is a very significant location for the St Patrick's Day parades, and I collected many photographs and videos of the parade and celebrations, but before the parade its self, I walked from Down Cathedral to the town square, and watched musicians and dancers there and in the town's museum.  The poem recounts these experiences.  It is a work-in-progress, and I'm not entirely happy about the "shyly smiling" line, as this is more suggestive of an English than Irish temperament, though it is perhaps a nod to my own presence in the poem, as an Englishman abroad, so to speak.


A town in tiers
like a ladder,
to climb you
is to join the dots
from one church to another.

The long main road,
bracketed by spires,
old industry
and the skeletons of trains
tapers by the square
where we watched the centuries
unravelling in dance,

the town become a stage
music throbbing through its veins,
as the spires of Down Cathedral
pierce the clouds,
we clap, shyly smile,
and slowly sway beneath the rain.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Ships That Pass In the Night


 My recent visit to Northern Ireland, where I sought out material for my upcoming Brontë Beginnings talks at the birthplace of Patrick Brontë  and it surrounding areas, involved an eight-hour overnight crossing from Birkenhead to Belfast.
I spent a lot of time on deck, watching the distant glimmers of other ships, and began writing the following poem inspired by this experience.


Rain sprays, splintering,
hissing off the hull
like shards of ice,
spinning into limitless
black vastness.

Fiery tufts of amber,
sparkly splashes blue
and white, frazzlings
of neony ink,
leaking into black.

These fragile flags
flicker and blink
like electric dot-the-dots,
or else hold solid,
coldly seeping onto sea.

We skim each others' orbits
like the carriages of trains
shunting through tunnels,
windows lit by eyes
as a myriad of lives
nearly connect.

A short poem about taking a shower

Water, like hot sleet,
rinses over me,
its cleansing needles
sharpening like love.

I crouch,
not so much embrace
as am embraced by,
leak my body into,
its liquid sauna,
feel the soughing off
of aches,
stretching through the years.

I fee the need
to thank everyone who has helped me.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Free Samples, a poem about my father

Two nights ago I had the pleasure of reading at an event called Turn the Page, which takes place at The Book Corner bokshop in the Piece Hall, Halifax.  It was the first poetry reading I had done in almost a year, and I couldn't have asked for a warmer audience.

I opened with a poem about my father, a salesman, who died last year.  When I was young, he made a living selling sweets, later going into management.  He was very successful and an added bonus of the job were the many "freebies" he would bring home, especially on Friday nights when, from time to time, he would return home laden down with boxes of free samples from the various suppliers he was selling for.  Here is the poem, which I hope you like:


Often, on a Friday night,
my father brought free samples.

Bag upon bag,
tube after tube
of fizzbombs, blackjacks,
long and sticky strips of chewy tooth-rot,
sherbet dips, those necklaces
that made it feel like you were biting into stone,
candy cigarettes that minted up the mouth,
chocolates of every variety.

Best of all were the jellies -
sugar-speckled cola bottles,
vampire teeth, dusted jelly babies,
wine gums, jelly-reptiles,
strange multi-coloured snakes
oozing juiciness,
slivery holograms and foam mushrooms,
jelly beans and jelly bears and jelly bugs,
miscellanies of jellies, pastels, lollies, liquorice,
a copious outpouring of confectionary,
a life I thought would never end.

Brontë Beginnings

Over the next few weeks and months I will be adding photographs and information pertaining to my recent visit to Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, where I visited the birthplace of Patrick Brontë on his birthday.  The purpose of this visit was to gather material for a series of presentations about Patrick and the family's Irish legacy, and I was delighted to meet many people with Brontë connections, including local historians, writers, and even living descendents of the Brontës.  The photograph below shows, L-R local historian Uel Wright (descendent of Dr William Wright, author of the 1893 book The Brontës in Ireland, SZ, family descendent Anne McKee (nee Brontë) and retired teacher and tour guide Kathleen McNiece.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Pat Winslow's Poem Man Carrying a Pig

I have been wondering recently, against a backdrop of combative public debate, in which many arguments are either increasingly hysterical or purely reliant on bland soundbites, and the way in which our social media have helped create both a climate of combustion and, paradoxically, a sort of bunker mentality whereby we can take cover within the coccoons of websites, groups and echo-chambers in which our own points of view are reiterated and our senses of identity reasurred without ever having to encounter, much less give serious consideration to, opposing or divergent schools of thought, how frequently or rarely anyone nowadays finds themselves actually changing their minds in response to an opposing point of view. And I have asked myself this question not only in relation to public issues, but to poetry as well.
We are fond of saying poetry changes things, can shift our consciousness and propel our emotions, open us up to new ideas and challenge our perceptions.  But how often have ow often have I found myself pulled up by the bootstraps by a poem, really jolted out of my comfort zone or forced to confront difficult or important messages?  In poems from Africa, from Ireland, often. In British poetry, less so.  But one such instance would be Lancashire born Pat Winslow's poem Man Carrying a Pig, inspired by the Peter Coker painting of the same name. 

Now living in Oxfordshire, where she works as a writer in residence and humanist celebrant, Pat Winslow is a poet of acute attention to detail, and I find her reading her poetry rather like analysing my own conscience under a microscope.  I've written about the poem in question before, back when I first began this blog in September 2015 in fact:
but I first discovered it in the spring of 2004, between the pages of the literary journal Obsessed with Pipework. 
My earlier essay describes how:

Coker's picture shows a smudge-faced man in butcher's smock, with an abnormally sized hand, trying to uphold or maybe lift a pig hanging from a hook. He is recalled in the poem by his apron glowing with blood, and the scene is compared to

the moment when a dancer

hoists his partner onto his shoulder,

this is more about him than her.

and decribes the impact of the poem as genuinely life-changing - among the main triggers for my renewed abstention from dead flesh. I stand by this description.  Although I had been a vegetarian previously, and am sure I would have made the leap back sooner or later anyway, reading this poem was more than a little influential in my thinking, and when, a year later, I took the decisive step of establishing my decision, the imagery and effect of this poem were among my foremost inspirations. 

It is entirely possible that my reading of the poem is a purely personal take.  I may have interpreted something allegorical in a literal, physical way.  But should this matter? The question of authorial intentions versus the interpretation of the reader will always endure, and is no doubt the subject of another discussion, but the important thing for me in re-reading this poem, is the arresting memory of its power, and the way in which its stark, incisive writing shook me to my core, planting a seed of change. Running its unflicnhing pictures through my mind, I asked myself, do I really want to be a part of this? Its highly charged yet underplayed sense of menace, the way the poet presents a scene of severed life and blood-stained death within the elegant prism of a dance, all build to a picture of inhumanity, which ultimately contributed to my following of what I firmly believe has been a better path in life.


His apron is glowing with blood
in the half-lit shed.

Like the moment when a dancer
hoists his partner onto his shoulder,
this is more about him than her.

See how he cups the war spot turned cold
behind her left ear,how he cradles the fold

where her foreleg jerked from her ribs,
how he lifts her, how he gives 
her status as he slips

her off the hook. A murderer loves his victim
eyes closed, mouth slightly open, breathing.

He coud be kissing her throat,
his lips are so close. There's a thin grout
of blood under eachnail he'll bristle out tonight.

He'll never scrub her abattoir stink
from his dreams. It'll sink

and rise like a piece of gristle,
like an adam's apple,
like a refusal to swallow.

The act will keep repeating.
He'll see her swinging, dancing.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Pangolin Moon - an Octolune

It was World Pangolin Day this weekend.  I decided to compose an Octolune in celebration of these magnificent, unusual animals. I hope you like it!

Moon, pangolin moon,
burrowing in cumulus,
like a rolled bone
drenched in keratine,
you coil, cloud-cocooned,
a scaly sphere, lunar-bloom,
dangling diamond, pangolin moon.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Two poems about Squirrels, for Squirrel Appreciation Day

I notice it is Squirrel Appreciation Day, and would like to share two pieces I have written on the subject. 

Although I have vague childhood memories of red squirrels scrambling about the conifers around my primary school, only once have I seen one in adulthood - in the summer of 2015, in Fog Lane Park, Manchester - which by odd coincidence music fans may recognize from the video for the Oasis single Shakermaker...
The squirrel as way too quick and elusive for me to take a photograph, but I later documented the brief interaction in this short poem:


Your scarper-sprint is almost clumsy,

tumbling through a sea-green field,

wary as a rabbit,

your soft dance of hazy flames

a hungry stumble

the colour of autumn leaves.

While their grey cousins, much more regular - indeed virtually ubiquitous - presences, are described in the poem below:


Not exactly grey, though.

More a blend of oaky, barkish dark,

snow-speckled, blotched

in honey-coloured patches

seeping through your rough

face fur, fuzzy-looking

as a head of teazel.

Plucky, tree-hopping, interloping imp,

hunched on a sycamore trapeze,

mid-nibble, acorn clenched

between soft paws

and hamster mouth,

one thing you are not

is a killer,

and in your shadow-slinking

birch bough bounce and dash

as you duck and dive

between sawn tree trunks and graves

what I read in you is fear.

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)