Apple peel spirals, the big mixing bowl
sailor-striped and chipped as old teeth:
a tickle of cinnamon, scratch of nutmeg.
Great waves of sugar, the flour and suet
scooped and folded, stroked or beaten.
A battered square tin: perhaps the rust
improves the flavour. Heave the gloop in,
feel its suck and pull, the letting go
clinging as embraces on a quayside.
Food for cowherds, trawlermen. You
anchored the ordinary, reeled us from winter
to a fading light swollen with scents of apples.
This poem won first prize in the Guernsey International Poetry Competition, 2016 and will appear on one of Guernsey’s buses.
Where three ash trees serrate the sky
the stream bends and a slab of rock
creates a natural weir. Everything
is on pause. Shallows become thigh deep.
For fifty yards the twist and tumble stops:
the brook descends in gentle steps,
gingerly trying its weight on the next stair –
a shuffling elder of a dying clan.
This river has two voices. One, endless,
murmurs its crowd of ghosts, the slaters
who heaved and hewed, swore,
always wore black to chapel.
Above and below, dissent or descant,
vexations of children, a clucking of hens,
a bubble of meat boiled to fragments
and old ones counting the dead.
Past the sweet brambles, the river turns:
beyond a creaking footbridge
its course is dark as starlight.
The valley drowns, a baptism of stone.
On land, the huge sea strikes the senses most.
Its expanse, true. But more the million years
of war against the cliffs. A shattered coast,
caves, detritus, wrack. White-tailed eagles steer
a line above the zig-zags, smooth away
jagged edges. Ahead, a rarity:
a fertile slope, heaps of bleached stones too high
to be natural. This place is empty.
Not empty. Emptied. The day’s forced march, bairns
screeching like buzzards, the cattle left,
the food eked out. The swell and swish of brine
and bilge. Always waves, churn and plunge and lift.
They said we would have land. We only saw
the sea, the sea, the leviathan sea.
A mouldy lemon tinge about this sky,
shades smudged between daffodil and tin, shot
with hints of duck-egg. Grimaces as I run by
say rather you than me, an admiration I know well.
A half-laugh, like the half-weather rolling in –
a slash of rain, spit of hail, snowline on Win Hill.
No point in slowing down at Stanage Pole.
Although the flagstones level a few yards
you press on, pump the blood to toe and heel.
You’re praying it won’t pour. When horizontal raindrops
whip your eyes, you’re finished, vision just a blink
and sting. Better when you can lift your gaze each step,
take in the shades of lead above Mam Tor,
the peaty tumble of subsiding sun,
the Long Causeway’s bend and slant to evening glower.
There may be a line
a dozen potholes beyond Stanage Pole
where sibilant South Yorkshire ends
and sandy mud turns into muddy sand,
a missing marker between here and there
the no-man’s-land that holds stupidity from folly
between persistent drizzle and a drenching
where sodden sedge slumps above sodden city;
it may be there’s a spot on squawking moor
where one becomes the other, where the run
of wonder turns to Sisyphean slog
and strike of heel or toe is just another nail
into the coughing lung, a bruise in earth,
dark footings where blood blisters blacken.
Dancing a drunkard’s jive from block to rock
the fog unfurls its fools, mad and alive.
Then comes a bridge and tarmac. Over the cattle grid
the long slope and the straight road back
insist we shape and are not shaped. Stones
are square, wood is chopped, sheep are penned
and in the suburbs
the television trumpets from the top of Lydgate Lane
but God still sings in Ranmoor.
A crevice you can only squeeze in
as a six year old: lithe enough
to wriggle free of parents’ gaze,
small enough to vanish in the split.
Castle walls you can only scale
at seven: perpendicular, with one way up,
a view to fortify against adults
hurling thoughts at one other.
Bracken you can jungle in
at eight: lost in summer shade,
a stolen penknife sharper than the words
still puncturing your ears.
At eighteen, all the green and bronze
greyed out by traffic: and you,
lessened by school, too big to fit
into the only bit of growing up you’d keep.
This poem has also appeared in Message in a Bottle.
You might draw a basking snake,
curled within the curl of a branch
or the flicking tail of a ringed lemur
on your shoulder in Madagascar;
your pen might take that curve,
those unprepossessing angles,
unnerve them into some fantastic creature:
a post-rock poster for a band
thumping and droning on Icelandic shores
where prone people let the beat
wash like a tide that knows no odds
between now and forever;
or, apocalyptic, you might conjure
waves of hangers just like this, twists
of wire spiralling like triffids, bursting
from dry-cleaners’ shops to seize the streets…
but I remember coats. The black, the green
and especially the red one, a gash,
a splash of smile against the grey
like the way you shone
the day we climbed up Beamsley Beacon,
saw Yorkshire glow in wagtail grey and yellow
and we made snow angels.
In the afternoon we found a village café
strangely stuffed with model railway parts
for children to dream up new worlds
and dads to condense theirs
in attic rooms that maybe look like yours
with unused hangers in a recess
of might-have-beens. I hope they know
that miles away someone a bit like you
is adventuring, has got their coat, their smile.