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.

Payment in kind

12 April 2011 § 8 Comments

Life and living

I know how it looks:
My riding the roads and
Walking the woods
On weekdays;
My chair growing cold
Keyboard quiet, screen boarded-up
Dust settling slowly on the desk.
But
Putting others’ words on paper
Like hammering bent, rusty nails
Into a rotten, splintered board
Is just a job.
The real work is here,
Among the tongue-tied trees
And voiceless flowers;
The wind grows weary
Of whispering to itself,
And the woods are bursting
To share old secrets
So long held in.
All this
Must be taken down,
Absorbed, distilled, translated.
A life’s labour,
Voluntary, open-ended:
Without pay or prospects,
Pension, promotion.
No kind of living;
And the only true life.

Seeing the wood for the trees

7 April 2011 § 16 Comments

Call it a wood

Call it a wood
If you will,
But this is my cathedral;
A greater glory captured in a single hornbeam bud
Or papery anemone
Than any Caen stone vaulting
Or stained-glass acreage.
And this is my study;
These living trees inspire more lines
Than the dead wood of my desk.
And this is my schoolroom;
These mute tutors hold the wisdom
Of the earth, and every lesson worth the learning
Of life and death, of failing and returning.
And this is my hospital;
In these soft scents and shaded paths
Lie sovereign remedies
For all my pains of heart and mind.
And this is my sanctuary;
The fears that stalk my nights and days
Dare not follow when I claim
Protection beneath this canopy.
And this is my stronghold;
A bulwark against the madness,
The ugliness, the noise
Of all that lies outside:
Call that the world.

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.

Jurassic laundry

6 March 2011 § 10 Comments

Digging deep

They’ve been laid down
Over endless ages;
Layer upon layer
Of vests and shirts
Compressed in deep, cemented strata,
Shot through with seams
Of stone-aged denim;

Forgotten skirts
And fossil frocks
Cut like fault-lines
Through a couple of aeons’-worth
Of dark, basaltic socks.

Digging down into the lowest reaches,
We uncover t-shirts,
Shorts and flimsy, strappy stuff
From far-off fiery days
Before the earth grew hard and cold.

And like prospectors, gold-fever-gripped
We whoop at each new strike:
Deposits of bath-towels, nightshirts, sheets
A snaking vein of kitchen cloths;
A rich lode of clean underwear.

And nowhere
Do we detect
The smallest trace of iron.

This evening, we finally got round to sorting out the stack of clean laundry in the airing-cupboard, which was as high as the North Face of the Eiger and just as intimidating. It took all three of us, and there were things in there we’d forgotten we even owned. We’re not slack, exactly; we’re just very good at finding more interesting things to do. And we really hate ironing. One of the many reasons I don’t have a proper job requiring shirts and stuff.

Life force

1 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Miracle

I don’t need
To see five thousand fed
On loaves and fishes,
Blind eyes opened,
Or a man shake off the tomb like a twenty-four-hour flu.

Just show me
A calf
Thirty seconds into life;
A heap of wet rags in the straw.

Her wide-eyed dam licks every glistening, astonishing inch of her;

And with the steam still rising
From her new piebald coat,
The calf snorts, shakes her head and strains to govern
Those outsize, unruly legs
And stand,
Drawn to the udder by a power
She can’t resist, and I cannot explain.

My mother-in-law’s house in Wales is on her brother’s dairy farm. My daughter and I went down to visit Uncle R one afternoon, and arrived literally seconds after a heifer calf had been born. My daughter, who’s nine, was captivated by the new arrival (who’s since been named after her) and I was reminded that miracles not only can happen, but do. You know them when you see them.

On writing

19 February 2011 § 9 Comments

THE WORK

On some days
The words just appear
In a quicksilver surge,
Irresistible as Spring,
The old pen leaping in my grip
Like a live thing.

On others
I’m hauling them up
Like huge rusty anchors
On slimy miles of iron chain,
And every straining tug and slip
Brings its own pain.

And today
I may turn out to be
Some lyric magician
Or manacled convict breaking stone.
But gladly taking my next trip
Into the unknown.

I don’t think we necessarily choose to be writers; I think very often it chooses us. I write for a living, as well as for fun, and I find both aspects of the craft incredibly, heart-breakingly hard sometimes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m taking a few days off now, heading down to the wild west of Wales to enjoy the restorative effects of clean air, long walks with the whippet, time with my girls, red kites overhead and regular exposure to my mother-in-law’s superlative cooking. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading and commenting; your generosity and support are truly overwhelming. Look forward to being back with you all soon.

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