Desecration

13 June 2011 § 11 Comments

Heart broken

Rounding a rise deep in the wood
I feel my throat and fingers tighten:

A half-dozen young hornbeams
Supple, wrist-thick, new in leaf,

Wrenched from their ancient coppice-stools
Or snapped off shoulder-high,

Torn ends splayed like old paintbrushes,
Stark-white as wantons stripped in the market-place.

Someone seized these living limbs
And broke them, felt the soft bark split and curl

Heard the tender fibres tear
Smeared their hands with green and sap

And – what then? Just walked away
Or – more likely – ran off laughing, leaving

These slender lengths of springtime bent
And sticking out like dislocated fingers.

I stand in my defiled, sacred space
And grieve. For more than trees died here today.

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.

 

Sounding the alarm

14 April 2011 § 6 Comments

The night watch

Walking the woods as twilight slips
Like a poacher between the fading trees
My every step sets off some new alarm:
A blackbird chinking like a mason’s chisel;
A stream of shrill invective
Pouring from an unseen wren, blazing with a courage
A hundred times her size;
Pigeons clattering from the topmost branches
In a fusillade of frantic wings;
Jays and magpies rasping threats, while the silly yaffle
Hides behind his nervous laugh.
The watchword is passing through the wood
Like a creeping barrage. I advance behind it,
All element of surprise long gone
And with it any hope of gaining ground.
And as I pass back into the world
Of cars and curses, litter and the ugly shouts
Of boys and girls abroad too late, grown up too soon,
The darkening wood still rings with song:
The all-clear, and a sweet lament
For what the world once was
And all that we have lost.

Harmony and discord

30 March 2011 § 10 Comments

News of the world

Eight voices
Reaching across five centuries;
An old motet,
Its golden notes as rich and clear
As honey in the comb,
Pouring from my radio
Over the kitchen counter
And the breakfast bowls;
Eight parts intertwining, rising
Bass to treble,
Earth to heaven:
Nesciens mater virgo virum
A purity unstained by pride,
A verity undimmed by time,
Whatever you believe.

Eight a.m.
Six pips count the seconds down
And my own century smashes in
With yet more news of war and cuts,
Protestors, rebels, innocents
Lands torn up by natural forces
Ideology and isotopes.
And Mouton’s melodies are blown away
Like dandelion seeds.
Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi,
Miserere nobis.

Like Charles, I’ve despaired of the news, which is why I’ve finally kicked the Radio 4 habit (and as any regular listener will tell you, that’s like converting to a different religion) and transferred my allegiance from The Today Programme to highbrow music station Radio 3 when I’m unloading the dishwasher and preparing breakfast. Even here, though, the BBC insists on providing an hourly news update, and this morning, I just wasn’t quick enough with the ‘off’ button.

A tale of our times

24 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Cuts

He walks
Towards the grey stone house
Like a battlefield surgeon coming down the line
Or a man who, shaving hastily, contrived to nick
An artery in his neck.
The warm red rain has spattered his face,
Soaked his cap and shirt-collar,
Stained overalls and hands like some apprentice butcher’s.

He knows
This was a task he should have tackled
Back when they were calves,
The horns mere buds, and their removal
No more than a touch of glowing iron,
A brief sharp stink of burning hair –
A job for life in a minute’s easy work.
Now, left so late, it took three men
And a whole sodding day of trodden feet,
Shouting, straining, geysers of muck,
Maddened beasts slamming on sleepers and steel;
An improvised corrida, short on finesse,
Long on blood.

He begrudges
The time, the hurt, the fat fee to the sweating vet;
Still, it had to be done:
Seeing them swaggering into the yard,
Cocksure with their weaponed heads,
There was no question. The wounds, torn wire
And their seigneurial strutting at the trough
Left him no choice
But the crush, the needle and the blade. Yet

He finds
He cannot say who won this one. He’s left
Slumped and blasted, arms hanging like empty sleeves; the beasts
Bewildered, polls still stunned
By adrenaline local and the shock of shears.
All change in the herd, he thinks:
A social shuffling, a shift in power.
A bullet bitten, the right thing done.
But as he stumbles in to wash and eat
He shakes his head. And does not smile.

Black and white decision

13 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.

 

Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.

Under pressure

11 March 2011 § 4 Comments

Under pressure

The big John Deere
Is working late;
After so long waiting
For a reborn sun and drying wind
To strip winter from the soil
They’re staying out,
Getting on.
The ten-foot, two-tonne roller
Treads thick, green scents
From the tender grass;
Driving in frost-lifted stones,
Making pancakes out of molehills,
As it wraps broad silver bandages
Round the bruised and pummelled pasture.
But these bent blades will be re-forged,
Stronger, and in greater numbers,
Ready for the tearing mouths
And hooves of summer cattle.
The roller passes on –
No time to lose –
And the soft earth breathes again:
When pressed, we do not break;
Though crushed, we do not die.

 

I promised my good friend and fellow poet John Stevens another tractor poem; I had something different in mind, but this one came along first, during a ride on the Paramount yesterday as afternoon gave way to evening. Apologies for the pic; a long-range phone-camera effort, I’m afraid.

Filthy lucre

8 March 2011 § 8 Comments

Rolling in it

I had a spring song
Surging like the sap in my pen.
Then
When I read the news
My celandines shrivelled
My primroses lowered their pale faces
And my skylarks croaked, twitched
And tumbled out of the air.
Well
I guess you’ve earned your name
If not the sum
– enough to pay two hundred teachers –
They say you’re taking home this time:
The light of scrutiny and opinion
Just bounces off you;
So brilliant and precious
The whole world wants you for its own;
So adamantine in your defence
Of every penny,
The Mohs scale can’t measure
The hardness of your heart.
And as your limo wafts you
Into work this morning
I’m betting you’ll be laughing all the way.

In response to the revelation that Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays Bank, received pay and bonuses of £9.0 million, plus a further £15.2 million in shares, in 2010. My only comfort as a Barclays customer is that, as a result of the recession, for the last two years he’s been banking with me.

A necessary evil

28 February 2011 § 10 Comments

A necessary evil

How the words must hate me.
All day I forced them
Into acts of petty crime;
A thousand pretty perjuries
Committed to save my skin.
I twisted them,
Bent them into cunning shapes
Corrupted and persuaded them
To say one thing
While meaning
Quite another;
Hollowed out the truth
Then stuffed it full
Of fat, sweet-smelling falsehoods;
Bit my mother tongue
Until it bled.
Now
After hours
I can make my peace with them;
Restore the sacred trust
I sold for tarnished silver.
This is my penance
And redemption;
All is forgiven.
The job is done.

As well as (more or less) paying the bills, writing for a living can be a lot of fun. But sometimes, making words perform circus tricks feels like betraying them; they are my friends, after all. I’m never asked to tell outright lies in my work – God bless the Advertising Standards Authority – but it’s often a selective, filtered version of the truth. Poetry keeps me grounded, and ensures my own voice never gets wholly lost in all the smoke and mirrors.

Democracy in action

18 February 2011 § 6 Comments

A NEW LEAF?

I thought that I should never see
This triumph of democracy;

Our voices raised across the land
Forced ministers to stay their hand,

And cancel plans to sell our oaks
And other trees to greedy blokes

Who only see the beech and ash
And chestnut as a source of cash

And would have curbed our ancient right
To walk the woodlands. So in spite

Of pressures on the national purse
Our leaders paused, engaged reverse

And said that they had got it wrong
(As we had told them all along).

The law is made by fools, you see;
But only God can make a tree.

A follow-up to yesterday’s U-turn by the Coalition on its proposed national forestry sell-off. Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ has been parodied many, many times, most famously by Ogden Nash. I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

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