A Stranger on Bickershaw

I am a stranger here.

There are some familiar trees
but they look at me with different eyes

like the Highland cattle who have come from Lincolnshire –
the ginger bullocks with their long curved horns.

I want insects to walk in the tracks
of my wellies as I pick up
my mallet, spade,
hessian mat,
wooden pegs,
cardboard guard
carefully labelled with
an arrow pointing up lest I forget
my sense of direction in the wind and rain.

But they will not trust me for a long while yet
nor will the lapwings, the redwings, the fieldfare…

I want to be more than a cardboard cut-out
just miming and even more so when
I remember the miners –
hard hats, spades,
picks

(when I Google Bickershaw it says more
about the colliery than the village),

sinking shafts to the Plodder seam,

the falling cage and…

I am here planting trees
sometimes overturning a stone
or a piece of coal the chuck chuck chuck
of my mallet a reminder of all the years of hammering

and I am afraid of the absence of the Whistlers
who once upon a time gave a warning.

I am chucking out their memories.

Oh birds return oh birds return!

I believe this rod of willow is stronger
than my prayers and I take faith in knowing
it will outgrow the touch of a stranger.

Elk Child

I.
A procession of elk wearing dyed indigo coats.

I blink… once… twice… they do not disappear
but keep shuffling old bones and grumbling
about moving from one place to another

from summer to winter pastures

each print is its own ellipsis filling in
with indigo waters creating every contrapuntal lake.

II.
The need child is born and I do not know her meaning.

She is given the antlers and she sucks out the blood.
Yes, she crunches, and crunches, and crunches
and… this is long long ago… she grows…

III.
The ghost child wields a sabre of light
not quite for killing but not
quite for saving lives.

They scramble towards it…

The impeccable laughter of children…

IV.
In the woodlands is a glockenspiel tacked down,
windchimes that respond to inspiration.

Her head is light and rolls from side-to-side
not yet weighed down by the barrels
of blood and oil and voices…

the heavy weights of left and right.

V.
She will not be like the white elk
who wanders old and blind and staggering,
narrow-withered, not ridden, not tamed, but driven to exhaustion.

She will come with an antler in each hand balanced
on her mother’s back to bring a new-old song

from where the elk-dead walk…

The Blade-Makers

Take a walk
before sunrise
before the Capitol Centre

and you might hear them on the Flats –

the slow chip, chip, chip
of hammerstones
striking flint.

This is the sound of patience.

This is not Christmas shopping
nor is it factory or industry.

They are not pigmies or elves.
They are our ancestors –

a father teaching his son,
three brothers in competition,
a broad-shouldered woman
honing her blade alone.

Sometimes they sit in a circle.

Sometimes they sing a song
that sounds like blackbirds at dawn
in words we half-remember

that have been cut away by sharp edges.

When we refer to their ‘cutting edge technology’

they are gone and we are left standing amongst
the Smartphones, the Hotpoint dishwashers,
the tough shockproof waterproof
freezeproof cameras

that will likely break
within a year let alone survive 10, 000 years…

Elk Prints

The Harris Museum

I.
I lean down
to touch
them

like

an
ancient
huntress
taste

not
blood
but paint
still follow
the trail
of red

(do I detect the hint of a limp?)

up the stone steps
past paintings
depicting

your hunting
like the Stations
of the Cross

(watercolours)

those old old hunters
we will know as the Dwellers
in the Water Country

semi-amphibious
blue-limbed
against
the green
of the fenlands

(it is 11,500BC)

bows drawn back
like the grins
of wolves

the madman
with the axe who
severed your tendons

before you limped on
dripping red

your pain
sucked up by
the sedge

the last
shudder of
your thick skin
not enjoyed by midges
at mid-winter
in a pool.

II.
On the
second floor
in the Discovery Gallery

where your skeleton stands
beyond hunting trophy
beyond Messiah
beyond icon

I pause for breath imagining

flints tips against ribs
heaving lungs

the loneliness
of your
heart.

III.
When I press
the red button that blasts
out your roar

the city trembles

breathes in and breathes out

the paddle of a dug-out canoe
splashing a reminder
of aurochs, deer,
wolf, elk…

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for the images.

Words Found in Stillness

In stillness
strength

in strength
courage

in courage
the will

to serve you
mind body soul

when yours at one
in stillness

I wait to know
your will

***

Of all the challenges in my life that are linked to my path of devotion to Gwyn – poetry, running, fighting, the restoration of wild places and creatures, learning practical skills out in the woodlands – the one that requires the least is probably the hardest, that is spending time in stillness and silence listening.

There’s seldom anything to show from it. Few ways to express the feeling of simply being in the presence of a god yet the subtle realignments of the soul that take place in such a state are slowly revealed.

In moments where once I’d have panicked I find myself falling back instead on those moments of stillness, find my strength in the strength of the bull-horned warrior-hunter god who works tirelessly to gather the souls of the dead back into his realm. I’m beginning to understand that, having led me to my spiritual path, gifted me with its magical core, given me a reason to live, he is now teaching me the means of survival and opening up possibilities of me finding a place within the wider world.

Where exactly that will be I’m not sure but I’m coming to know I’m heading in the right direction when I can find stillness, when my breath is one with my god’s, when my will is aligned with his will.

Spirit Ship

Two ghosts
come knocking
at your door

knocking knocking
at your door

with a spirit ship.

In the hold is
an empty chest.

In your chest a hole.

“The ship must sail.”

She must be launched
with all her cargo

on the sea that has
always been lapping
outside your door.

Two ghosts
come knocking
at your creaking hull.

“She must be full.”

You are emptying.

The sails are filling.

No more knocking
just the swaying as she
sails to the eternal.

The sea is lapping
lapping at your door.

The chest is full.

With thanks to Bryan Hewitt for use of his image ‘Voyager Passing’. You can view more of Bryan’s photography and his films on his website Mythology Now HERE.

Review: The Result Is What You See Today

The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running was given to me by fellow poet Terry Quinn. I often see Terry out walking when I’m running and only found out he used to run when he gave me this book. From Terry’s poem ‘to my red tracksuit’ and his bio I discovered he ‘could run for hours down the Grand Union’ and ‘over the dunes at Great Yarmouth’ and completed the 50 mile Highland Cross before being forced to give up by prolapsed discs.

I’ll admit I wasn’t overly surprised to see an anthology of poems about running. I’ve always found poetry and running (along with walking and cycling) to go hand in hand – being firmly in one’s body and immersed in one’s surroundings acts as a counterpoint to hours spent exercising only the parts of the brain that link thought to thought in our imaginal worlds and word to word on the screen.

In their introductions the three editors (all poets and runners) Kim Moore, Paul Deaton, and Ben Wilkinson address the question of ‘why we run’. Answers include that it’s a ‘cure’ for stress, ‘illness, bereavements, break-ups’, a source of meaning, and an act of transformation. Wilkinson concludes: ‘runners run as writers write: because they want to, and because they can.’

When I opened this book and saw it contained 128 poems about running from the ancient days of Pindar through to today I found myself wondering whether I would enjoy reading all the poems because they’re about a topic I’m interested in or whether it would feel like a marathon task.

Due to the skilful ordering of the editors (the book is split into four section based around themes drawn from lines in the poems: ‘what I was born for’, ‘against the rising light’, ‘our bodies gone to our heads’, and ‘I won’t stop until I’ve travelled from one life to another’) and the quality and diversity of the work I found myself sprinting through it with great admiration for the scenes evoked by each poet. At the end feeling fulfilled and looking back on particular poems with wonder.

Within its pages you will find much of what you might expect: ‘chatting, stretching, tightening of laces’, ‘soles slap the pavement, fat wobbles’, ‘breath, push, breath, push, breath, push’, ‘breath, / the kilometre kiss-kiss-kiss of rubber / on asphalt’. References to ‘purple lycra’, ‘the fluorescent top’, ‘calf-socks’, i-pods, ‘vests and gels and spiky massage balls’. The dread of shin splints and a prayer to the knees: ‘Knees, / oh my forty-year old knees, don’t take this away from me’.

‘Someone else’s bum’ by Katie Greenbrown stands out as a humorous prose poem about a predicament all female runners will relate to. ‘I watch and I’m afraid of what they’ll say if I try to run past them dressed this way.’ ‘But going back is twice as far… And I need to get past and go home for a shower.’ ‘It’s awful.’ ‘There were forty-five of them, and one of me. No-one seemed to realise that running clothes are tight for functionality. Not for titillation. Pardon the pun. Or so you get a really decent look at someone else’s bum.’

There’s much of the unexpected and the astonishingly original too. My out-and-out favourite is ‘Running – a bucket list’ by Jon McLeod. In a dazzling display of imagination he lists the runs he would like to do in his lifetime beginning with ‘a gentle jog’ in the ‘Early Cretaceous’ . These include ‘Hill run with Moses, stone tablets providing full body workout’, ‘The battle of Prestopans, 21 September 1745, joining the Higland Charge, downhill sprint session, avoiding musket fire’ and, most memorably for me, ‘The ninth circle of hell, club led by Dante and fellow sinners, difficult footing on icy lake.’

Other poems that stand out are ‘Blake on his morning run sees angels in a tree’, ‘Run, Boorana, Run…’ and the touching ‘Running Together in Greenwich Park’. The latter is addressed to a fellow runner who uses a three-wheeled racing wheelchair and contains the lines:

If you ask me
Is it still running
if our legs don’t move?
I will say yes…

I enjoyed this collection immensely and am very grateful to the publisher, Smith/Doorstop, for giving Terry this free second copy and to Terry for passing it on to me. It is a grand tribute to both running and poetry.

The Result Is What You See Today: Poems About Running can be purchased HERE.