Testing times

14 September 2011 § 9 Comments

Blood work

Someone in a lab
Is looking through a lens
At a smear of blood and lymph.
An anonymous clutch
Of nameless cells
In search of an identity.

A blackthorn snapped off
And driven deep,
Bee-sting, dog-bite,
Barbed-wire tear, unseen blow –
Any of the litany
Of injury attending dogs like him
(Long on legs, short on brain)
Might have forced the flesh to swell
Into the hen’s egg
That now lurks, submarine-sinister
Beneath his velvet skin.

Or something else:

That single drop
From the tablespoonful the syringe drew off
Will tell all.

So we await the blood-work
Wondering what they’ll find
And how much we stand to lose.

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Fields of fire

20 June 2011 § 4 Comments

Night fighters

A white beam
Sweeps the midnight fields
Like a hand searching under a bed.
Grass-blades caught beneath its bright gleam
Bristle black; a million tiny gnomons
Telling the rapid hours
Of this unwonted, sudden sun.
The woods recoil before
The engine’s heavy throb,
And poplars flare
Like burning buildings
In the tail-lights’ angry glare.

Two shots.

The echo rolls
And ricochets around the farm.
Keep your head down, Reynard;
Squeeze tight the shining eyes
That will betray you
And seek the shelter of the earth.

At half a mile, my skin grows tight
Waiting for the spent stray’s bite;

Then wonder. The hunting dog is gone
In search of rabbits on the wrong
Side of the hedge. Caught in the edge
Of that cruel light, a half-second’s untutored sight
Of that long nose and wolfish gait
Would be enough to seal his fate.
I call him, with the sickened urgency
Of frantic fathers trapped in Tripoli
When unseen hunters rip their night
With noise, and death’s unholy light.

Perspective

12 June 2011 § 6 Comments

Weatherproof

Seen from inside
Outside
Is a grey hell:
Trees in full leaf flayed by a west wind
Thrash and hiss with spray
A ten-tenths sky leans on the land
Like a drunkard on a doorpost
And next-door’s downpipe
Mumbles an ostinato in its throat.

I stand under the wood’s dripping eaves,
Smiling warm, watching the hunting-dog
Gun down rabbits in the wet field.
No rain reaches beneath my hat-brim;
My jacket turns the wind’s blade like a shirt of mail;
In these boots I could wade a river.
No such thing
As bad weather:
Just the wrong clothing.

 

Back from the dead

25 April 2011 § 10 Comments

Dead lucky

He didn’t know
When he spied the dozen
Cakes left cooling in the kitchen
That underneath its icing
And chirpy chocolate eggs
Each contained
Concealed in its sweetness
Small wrinkled packages
Of death by renal failure:
Just that they were there, unwatched
And within reach
Of his questing needle nose.

A lethal dose
In those few furtive swallows;
A moment’s greed
Became a frantic hour
Of hectic emetics
That proved
Fruitless.

So to the vet’s
Sunday-afternoon silent
Where fair faces and healing hands
Made saviours of simple soda crystals.

The lad rose
And walked away.
And once again on Easter Day
Death
Was made to taste defeat.

Yes, I’m afraid the whippet’s been in the wars again. Yesterday, he stole a couple of my wife’s delicious homemade Easter muffins off the kitchen worktop when we weren’t watching. Trouble was, they contained sultanas, and any grape, fresh or dried, is potentially lethal to dogs when ingested, even in tiny quantities. We couldn’t make him vomit them up, so it was off to the vets, who fortunately are two minutes’ walk away. They took the lad off into a backroom and got some soda crystals down him, which had (from our point of view, if not his) the desired effect. He seems none the worse for his brush with death, thank goodness, but by golly it’s hard on the nerves. I hope it doesn’t contravene any rules of the RCVS to publicly thank Rose the vet and Bex the nurse for their prompt, expert and sympathetic treatment – both of the lad himself, and us.

Back on his feet

18 April 2011 § 7 Comments

Up and running

Hopping, he was:
Near hind hitched up as though the ground
Was suddenly too hot to bear;
A trembling velvet milking-stool,
Head and tail hanging low,
A look of ‘better-leave-me-sir-I’ll-only-slow-you-down’
In his martyred, liquid eyes.

Rest and four days’ lead-walking.
Easy for the vet to say:
Hell on feet for us; the lad
A little keg of gunpowder,
The wire-taut lead a fuse
As every squirrel, cat and rabbit
For miles around chose these four days
To wander idly across our path,
And grin at our tempestuous tangles
And yelps of hopeless rage.

But then to see him free again,
Eating up the football field
In strides five times his length
And hear the thrumming of four sound feet
Behind me, feel him blow by
Like a train not stopping at this station,
Makes my heart lighter
Even than my wallet
And restores the swing
In my own step.

Directions

13 April 2011 § 6 Comments

Directions

Pass in under the wood’s eaves
And take the right fork past the tall lone ash
With the hole high up where the nuthatch hides.
Four steps down to the silted stream
Its banks revetted with iron roots
Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand.
Five back up to the field corner
And a sinuous trail, just shoulder-wide,
A winterbourne of mud between low branches
That pluck at clothes like nagging children.
Four ways shake hands in the trampled clearing;
Follow the one that rounds the rim
Of the deep pit dug by long-dead brick-makers.
Into the coppice, over twin ditches
The hunting-dog hurdles in two long leaps.
Past the great fallen tree, worm-holed, beetle-bored,
And weave through the birches down in the dip.
Hug the wood’s edge where it fronts the field
Home to rabbits and cows in the warmth of the day
And the fox in the evening. Up the short steep slope,
Sandy, seamed with burrows, to a broad, level ride
Under spreading oaks, where the bluebell scent
Hangs thick as smoke. Pause in a soaring hornbeam hall
High as a church, with a floor of beaten earth. Call the dog.
Over a young tree, still bravely bursting into leaf
Though laid low by a curl of wind a dozen nights ago.
Down the slope where the squirrels sprint
For safety in the tangled trees. Three steps down
To the sleeper bridge, then the last drag up
To the wood’s front door. Close it behind you.
Keep the key.

I got the idea for this poem from the wonderful ‘Britannia‘ atlas of England and Wales – the world’s first-ever nationwide road map, published by Scottish polymath John Ogilby in 1645. It consists of a series of 100 strip maps, drawn at the then-innovative scale of one inch to the mile, each describing a section of road, such as ‘London-Bromley-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge-Rye’ (plate 31) or ‘Oxford-Buckingham-Bedford-Cambridge’ (plate 80). It bridges the gap between modern cartography and the medieval means of navigating across country, which basically involved following directions from one town to the furthest extent of local knowledge, then asking again.

For my poem, I simply followed Ogilby’s example and wrote notes as I walked round our nearby woods. (Incidentally, Ogilby claimed to have surveyed over 26,000 miles of roads in order to compile his atlas, measuring distances using the intriguingly-named ‘Wheel Dimensurator’; about 7,500 miles’-worth appeared in the final version) Sadly, I can’t draw, so I’ve created a ‘strip map in words’, which I hope gives some flavour of what you might find if you ever chance upon our corner of the country.

You’re through to voicemail

5 March 2011 § 8 Comments

Off the hook

I’m sorry;
I’m not available
To take your call right now:

The air in there
Is sour and sick,
Thickened with work,
Tainted by worry
Like the gust of last night’s beer
From the pub door Sunday morning.

Now I’m out
Of reach of the bank, the Revenue’s men,
The trivial tyranny of whencanyougetitdoneby,
And the world falls away
Like the sheep-speckled hillside
Beneath the red kite’s wing.

Just a coat between me and the wind
That playfully snatches at collar and cap;
Boots pressed into the old, soft turf
Like the fifty-pence-piece in my Grandad’s palm;
The dog stops, turns, looks at me and laughs
And a lone crow tips me a knowing wink.

Can’t say
When I’ll get back to you.

This should give you some idea of the week I’ve had. Wish it was half-term again, and we were back in Wales.

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