On Learning Mosses

If I could learn
every species of moss
In Britain I would know 763 names.

A bardic task and a half and did those old bards
know the distinct differences between
the acrocarps and pleurocarps,

let alone the Andreales, the Bryales,
the Dicranales, the Grimmiales, the Hypnales,
the Orthotricales and Polytrichales?

We will never know how they named
the mosses and how they remembered them

but might imagine that they asked bardic questions

like “name the three pocket mosses in my pocket”:

Fissidens viridulus ‘Green pocket-moss’
Fissidens pusillus ‘Petty pocket-moss’
Fissidens bryoides ‘Lesser pocket-moss’

and “name the three beard mosses that grow in my beard”:

Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum ‘Red beard-moss’
Bryoerythrophyllum ferruginascens ‘Rufous beard-moss’
Pseudocrossidium revolutum ‘Revolute beard-moss’

and “name three mosses that have swan’s necks”:

Campylopus flexuosus ‘Rusty swan-neck moss’
Campylopus fragilis ‘Brittle swan-neck moss’
Campylopus setifolius ‘Silky swan-neck moss’

and “name three mosses that look like feathers”:

Kindbergia praelonga ‘Common feather-moss’
Bracythecium rutabulum ‘Rough-stalked feather-moss’
Brathythecium velutinum ‘Velvet feather-moss’.

Of course we know they did not use binomial names,

that the coming of the Romans was the death of the druids
if not of the bards, who lived on to learn Latin, Greek,
survived the Anglo-Saxons to learn the meaning
of grimm, if not of Johann Friedrich Carl Grimm and Grimmia:

Grimmia laevigata
‘Hoary grimmia’
Grimmia pulvinata ‘Grey-cushioned grimmia’
Grimmia decipiens ‘Great grimmia’.

Somewhere between these names

the magic is coming back – I can feel it
whenever a word and a moss I have found connect.
My field guide is like some archaic text.

‘Pleurocarps with straight, nerved leaves

Rhychonstegiella, Rhychostegium,
Brachythecium, Eurynchium, Homalothecium

Pleurocarps with curved, nerved leaves

Scorpidium, Craetoneuron filicinum

charming me like some ancient spell,
leading me onward on my quest.

My Green Chapel

I watch through the window
of the only house on this street not lit 
by party lights, the only one where ivy grows,
the one that seems shrouded by darkness and by sorcery.

The steady sound of hoofbeats has been coming to the North
since before the beginning of time, the beginning of myth,
the court of Arthur, and still he comes, the one we call Gawain.

He does not expect a woman this time crowned in holly and ivy.

He cowers away from the blood-red berries of my eyes 
and averts his gaze from the scars on my arms, 
imagining some distant rite of passage
even I can no longer remember.

I have been sharpening my axe
for a long, long time, waiting for the day
my Lord will no longer have the time to play this game.

I commend his courage, speak of the mathematical percentages
of the people who would take the Green Knight’s challenge,
those who would return to meet their fate.

“You’re the only one,” I laugh aloud.

His eyes are big as portals to the Otherworld. 

One day I will step through them and he will follow.

But not today because the blade of my axe just nicks
his neck, a small cut, which will leave a scar beside the others.

I straighten up with a blood-red stare and send him on his way
because my Lord and I have no more time for games.

Sunless Solstice

I.
It’s a sunless solstice
on my bridge over the Ribble
but yet the river flows

as if she has done so
since the beginning of time

in spite of the stopping and 
starting of the ice floes.

II.
I remember how once-upon-a-time
I held the sun in my hand
like the monster with the monstrous

CLAW

and wonder if I am the monster from
beneath the bridge who stole
the girl whose bike lights shine above.

III.
As the streetlights light up one-by-one

I ask Belisama – Great Goddess of the Ribble,
Old One, Shining One, Mighty One,

how many suns and how many stars,
how many daughters have swum
down your river to the GREAT BEYOND?

Will they ever be returned like Peter Pan

and the Lost Boys from Never Never Land,
like Pryderi, like Mabon, like the unnamed girls

whose names never reached the tongue-tip of song?

IV.
A sunless solstice, bike lights shine bright,
past Tinkerbell’s Nursery
I cycle on.

Skull

I.
If only 
I could find a skull
to give me back the breath of life –

the voice of a dead man is the only thing
that can give me back my creativity

when trying to write is difficult
as raising the dead.

II.
There are secrets
between life and death
that float like faces, like voices,

in that vastness, in that whiteness,
in that mist, in that silence before speech

where all the lost voices wander and a god says:

“When you cannot speak why not listen?”

How can I listen to the silence,
the silence of the mist?

III.
If only
I could light a candle
in the jaw of a skull like a tongue –

a flickering flame to guide me to where

the skulls and the skull keepers 
know of voices silenced,

smoky threads.

IV.
If only 
I could find a skull
that is not shattered like this one,

held together by strings of spider-thread,

broken by so many blows,
so many blows to
the head.

V. 
When I find
his skull, broken, 
occipital and foramen magnum
cracked along with his back molar

it reminds me of how I clench my teeth

when I am driving the roads that do not lead
to the next life, circuiting the M60,
praying I do not die

and am not found
skeletal fingers clasping
the steering wheel wondering
where on this road I lost my creativity.

VI.
Somewhere, somehow with the help
of the spiders I will learn to sew
our skulls together

and in the silence,
in the mist, we will listen 
and understand the words of a god.

*This poem relates to Worsley Man whose story can be read and his skull viewed here – https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/9781526150196/9781526150196.00013.xml

Three Peatland Poems and Book Sale on Gods & Radicals

Over the past three months three of my peatland poems have been published on Gods & Radicals – Erosion, The Stations of the Moss, and This Mossland Will Conquer.

My books are also part of a sale through Gods & Radicals HERE. It’s lovely to see them alongside books by other authors, who I admire. I would particularly recommend The Book of Onei by Christopher Scott Thompson, The Kindness of Ravens by Rhyd Wildermuth, and Gods Speaking by Judith O’Grady.

For the Dead, for the Mad, for the Poets

for the torn apart all the parts of our bodies will ride tonight,
crawl up from the bogs onto our swampy horses,

not the bog bodies who were found,
but those who were not found.

*

You summon back our voices like the mast on Winter Hill.

You make us appear again like television. Your hunt
would make a good film but most times myth
is better told in softly spoken words
and half-seen visions.

Radio broken. 
Someone smashed the television.

*

You are always off screen.
You are the one who is not named.
You are the one whose face is the face of a god.

The howls of the wind are the chorus of your hounds,

your words are furies and each has a hand, 
clutching, pulling, ripping, tearing.

*

You are the god of illusion
and the rending apart of all illusions.

The one who tears our false truths to shreds.

The jostling elbows, stuck-out toes, the heels dug in.

*

This is the time of fire, flood, rain, and catastrophe,
yet the beech leaves are yellow, gold, and green

in the kingdom beyond the kingdom beyond the kings 

and we call you a king without knowing the true meaning

of sovereignty, that your throne means more than gold.

*

Are you silence or the breaker of silence? 

So long ago I wrote: 

“The universe began 
with a howl and from the howl came death.”

The death-hounds within me giving tongue to a mythos
that came to me before my world had begun.

*

AWEN is not always a smooth chant
in the mouths of druids, but the broken vowels
of an awenydd when language cannot help and poetry fails.

Still, the body, its dislocated limbs, remember how to ride tonight.

*

And where is she in all of this? Riding ahead treading air un-abducted? 
Did you take her from the underworld or did she take you there?

Time, the clock does not obey, pivots like she on her wild white mare

like a dislocated limb. I have found that myth dislocates too,
frees itself from time and space, free and true.

This poem marks the first time I have felt inspired to share something here for a long time, something I felt compelled to share for my god after a walk near Winter Hill on Nos Galan Gaeaf. Maybe there will be more, maybe not, no promises, no deadlines…

King Fishing

I.

Your azure blue splash.

The quickness
of your dive.

Your kiss of fire.

Your splendour.

Your spine-snapping
savagery.

II.
Your body weight
in fish eaten

every day

fishing for
each of your young.

Your aeronautics.

III.
You were here
before someone wounded
the Fisher King

red dripping into blue

the blood from
his groin

like blood
from his queen’s
menses

flowing into the sea

(when male and female
had to bleed).

IV.
You were here
before the fae danced
in your colours

in the hall
of the King of Annwn
like devils

burning red
and cooling blue.

V.
You sat on your perch
and you watched

the gods –

some say
you advised
the Fisher King.

VI.
His wound

is beginning to heal
with the demise

of industry.

The red rivers
are flowing blue.

VII.
You are no longer
a myth

we cannot reach

on boats
of fish bones

sailing for halcyon days

because
they are here
like you

on this river.

VIII.
The Fisher King
is fishing.

The red world
is turning
blue.

This poem is the third of three pieces about creatures who build their nests in sandy banks and can be seen at Brockholes Nature Reserve. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago when I was applying for a paid traineeship on the Kingfisher Trail – a 14 mile recreational route following the rivers of the Croal-Irwell Valley connecting ‘the rural West Pennine Moors to the urban communities of Bolton, Bury, and Salford’ (HERE). Although I didn’t get the job (of 300 applicants I made the top three) I intend to walk the trail.

In this poem I link the kingfisher to Nodens/Nudd, an ancient British god of hunting, fishing, healing and dreams, from whose mythos the story of the Fisher King may have arisen (although Brân is a candidate too) and to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faery, whose people make merry in red and blue costumes in his feasting hall.

Coincidentally, around the same time, Gwilym Morus-Baird published a video on ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (HERE) where he discusses the symbology of Gwyn’s people wearing red and blue, which might have alchemical significance. Intriguingly he linked this to the two streams, Y Gwter Las and Y Gwter Goch which flow into Llyn y Fan Fach, the location of a story where a fairy bride is given away by a Fairy King-like figure.

Moving In With the Sand Martins

It lives in Europe, in winding holes in sheer sandy hills
– Linnaeus

I.
Riparia riparia
from ripa ‘of the river bank’
sounds like their djirr djirr prrt
beside the Ribble

as they arrive in sixes,
sevens, in their twenties,
swoop in from Africa

tumbling for gnats.

II.
Excited by the sight
of their forked tails and white bellies

we run to prepare the nesting boxes –

all 300 with their sandy tunnels,
dark and cavernous interiors,
tightly locked back doors,

dig out the moat to protect them from predators.

III.
When the world is too big,
the arguments at home intolerable

I think of them snug in their hotel
on their little island paradise.

“That’s it,” I tell my mum and dad.
“I’m moving in with the sand martins.”

IV.
I pack my rucksack full of feathers,
gather twigs, bits of reed, to make my nest

and push my way down the long, dark, sandy tunnel

to the cave where I stay all summer between
three pairs of sand martins and a mouse.

V.
As I sit alone and listen to the chatter
of males and females and soon their chicks
I realise it is not unlike being at home –

surrounded by happy families.

I listen to the tales they tell their young –
of the rite of leaving the cave, exiting the tunnel,
of the bright sunlit river and countless flies that lie outside.

Of how all this was made for them by the goddess of the Ribble.

Of how mighty Belisama loves riparia riparia
and her river-light guides them back.

VI.
I hear them tell of distant gods,
distant flying insects, distant animals
whose shapes I see dancing on the cave walls –

gazelles, cheetahs, wild dogs, buffalo, hartebeest,
scimitar-horned oxen with us no longer.

VII.
I hear the tales of the drought years
passed down from the legends who survived

(they have names like Long-Brown-Wing-Fly-Catcher
White-Belly-Diver-River-Dancer… chattering on
and on that I can’t pronounce in one breath)

the concerns of the elders who have seen
future droughts in the patterns of flies.

VIII.
I listen to their final farewells
to their young and hear them depart
to roosts where I cannot follow because

I do not have brown wings, a white belly, a forked tail.

I am not marked by a bar across my chest.
Thus barred from becoming a bird
where will I go this winter?

~

In early March, one of my tasks, as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve, was preparing the sand martin nesting boxes on Number One Pit (this is the name of a lake that formed in a pit dug for sand and gravel quarrying).

We opened up the backs of the boxes, cleared out old nesting materials (which can be a hot bed for parasites), added fresh sand and re-filled the tunnels with sand for the birds to push their way through in imitation of tunnelling into a sandy bank. They usually excavate horizontal tunnels up to 1m in length with a chamber at the end.

At this point in time the sand martins had started arriving in sixes and sevens and the day we finished twenty were seen over Number One Pit. They tend to arrive between mid-March and mid-April and to lay their eggs in late May.

This poem was written following a conversation with one of my colleagues, who I prepared the boxes with, about how good it would be to move in with the sand martins.

Cover Me in Moss

Cover these bare bones
no longer considered sacrosanct.

Cover me with eleven magical mosses:

Give me back my fringe of fimbriatum
and my cow-horns of denticulatum.

Let cuspidatum fill my wet places.

Let flat-topped fallax enfold my curves.
Let papillosum return my pimples rising in the damp.
Let squarrosum be my spikes of dignity.

Return to me my ruby slippers of capillifolium.

Let palustre and subnitens make me lustrous.
Let fuscum dress me in rusty colours.
Let magellanicum work its magic.

Give me back my hummocks
and my hair of hare’s tail cottongrass
and common cottongrass, cross-leaved heath,
bog rosemary and bilberry and I will be a common
for the large heath butterfly where all commoners are welcome.

Cover me in moss come make these mosslands whole again.

This poem is based on my paid restoration work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s contract team on Little Woolden Moss. This mossland, badly damaged by peat extraction, was taken over by LWT in 2012. Since then the drains have been blocked and new bunds built. We are currently planting cotton grass, hare’s tail cottongrass, sphagnum, cross-leaved heath and bog rosemary to recolonise the mossland and make it inhabitable for wildlife. Hare’s tail cottongrass is the food source of the large heath caterpillar and cross-leaved heath is the nectar source of the large heath butterfly. Planting these species will make possible its later reintroduction. The image of the ‘bog in a box’ directly above shows what the mossland will look like when restored.

This poem is written in the voice of the Mother of the Moss – a title of the wetland goddess Anrhuna.

Allotment C23

A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook,
tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?

A place to dig, to sow, to watch life grow,
leaving the battlefield and the ravens behind me

like the servicemen returning from the First World War?

Is it time to leave the heroes to be pecked apart
and join, instead, with the labouring poor?

To set aside the books of heroic poetry –
the verses on shattered shields and clashing spears,

the blood and bones to the soil return with spade
and hoe to feed the future generations?

Tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?
A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook

my Bremetennacum Veteranorum as I enter my later years?

As you might have guessed, after a year’s wait, I am finally the proud tenant of an allotment. This has come about after a difficult year during which I’ve felt like I’ve been kicked in the teeth by the universe in many ways, one of them being the landslide on Castle Hill cutting off my access to the yew tree where I dedicated myself to Gwyn on Fairy Lane.

I now feel my gods have gifted me with an alternative. It is happily within a bend of Fish House Brook, which begins near my house and runs through Greencroft Valley, where I run a friends group, before joining the Ribble at Fish House Bridge on the other side of the allotments. In this I see the guiding hand of Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, along with the land spirits and Gwyn and his ‘family’ – the Tylwyth Teg or ‘fairies’.

Whereas I had been considering moving away to find a job in conservation this has led me to decide to remain rooted in Penwortham, even if it means a longish commute. I am beginning a month of cotton grass planting on Little Woolden Moss near Manchester next week, which will be my first paid contract, and a couple of paid traineeships have come up in Bolton, so possibilities are opening up.

Having spent the last decade working with the heroic poetry of the Old North, not least in my latest collection ‘Co(r)vid Moon’ whose main characters are battlefield ravens, I’m sensing a shift away from the medieval courts, where I never belonged with the Taliesins, toward a poetry of the land, to where I belong, alongside other labouring poets.*

Although I’m far from retirement age I see this as a step in maturing and and stepping up to take responsibility for leading a sustainable life as I head toward the big 40 this November.

Since I took this photograph I have been clearing the paths, weeding, digging and putting manure on the beds, and chitting my first early potatoes.

I can now call myself an allotmenteer 🙂

*For example Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald whose work is based on their lived experience of working the land. (Although, of course, I do not claim to be as good!).