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

Ribble Ancestors

Fists of Stone

The face of a Stone Age man from the North West… about 40 years old when he died
The Harris Museum

They’ve given you a face.

Taken your 5,500 year old skull,
added facial tissue and facial muscles –
temporalis, masseter, buccinator,
occipito frontals, nose, lips.

Decided upon your expression.

It’s 2019 and the ‘ug’ caricatures
and Flintstones references are behind us
yet there is flint and stone in your jaw.
Your shoulders are like a boxer’s

so I imagine you ‘putting them up’.

Fists of stone – you were a prize fighter.
You would have been the strong man
of your day, felling old bog oaks
with your rough stone axe,

pulling them two at a time,

the muscles in your back –
trapezius, rhomboideus, serratus,
teres minor
and major, thoracolumbar fascia
straining as your broad feet sucked
in and out of the marsh.

Your children swinging from
your broad arms like long-tailed tits –
countless, twittering, as you tossed them
like juggling balls into the air.

Your wife liked to massage out
your knots and twists – tighter more oaklike
as you aged, treating each muscle
in turn like a polished stone,

tending to your calloused hands –

bathing your blisters, dabbing ointment
on your cracked knuckles, mending
your broken fingers with oaken splints.

When you fell like a tree,
not in battle but quietly on
your way back from the woods,
little birds in your branches,

muscles knotting one last time,

she did not carve your head but your fists
in stone, cast them into the river
with the oaklike log
of your corpse.

The little pebbles
of your pisiform bone,
metacarpals and phalanges
can be found on the riverbank
where she once grieved.

~

Cribra Orbitalia

This is the oldest skull so far dated – to between 3820 and 3640BC… This woman may have suffered from anaemia, indicated by an area of pitting in her left eye known as cribra orbitalia.’
The Harris Museum

You were a pale child.

Always the first to tire
on the walk from camp to camp,
struggling for breath, clutching at your chest.
You said your head was light as a wisp of smoke
before you lay down and floated away.
You said you were a feather.

The reddest of meat failed
to bring a blush to your cheeks,
to keep you to the ground.

Often you touched the ridge
of your left brow and pressed
as if probing for the lesion.

When your skin turned yellow
as the beak of a whooper swan,
your eyes eerie and wolf-like,

you were exalted and they listened

to your visions of flying white-winged
to the distant north where frost giants fought
with fists of ice and the claws of bears
were hungry for your children.

When you returned with
seven cygnets ghosting from
beneath your right wing

they walked on egg shells
fearing you were the daughter
of the God of the Otherworld.

When you were found
with a single feather on your breast
it was said you flew with him to Cygnus,
rising on your last swan’s breath.

Now instead they point to the pitting
of your left eye and speak of cribra orbitalia –
the hypertrophy of red bone marrow, megabolasts,
megabolastic anaemia, lack of intrinsic factor,
the uptake of coblamin (vitamin B12).

And I try to hold both science and myth
in the cavelike porosities of your left orbit….

~

Shades of Blue

‘an older man who may have lived in the Stone Age as there is evidence that he has been killed with a stone implement, similar to the axes displayed’
The Harris Museum

You had a violent reputation.

It travelled with you across
the Water Country like the flies
on the back of the aurochs

who buzzed around the heads
of your enemies clotting like blood
around their pecked out eyes.

She always knew when you
were coming back by the noise
of the bluebottle… zzz…???

A flicker across the rush light.
Zzz… zzz…. zzz… unmistakeable.
A rush of dread as it was lit up on
the wall shiny iridescent blue.

When she was little she counted
its colours and gave them names like
New Dawn Blue, Noon Blue, Happy Blue,
Deep Waters, Dwellings in the Sea-Sky Blue.
As the shadows of her marriage darkened
she named them Twilight Blue, Indigo,
Bruise Blue, Black Blue of Murder.

Her hand went to her broken cheekbone.

She took the children to the Whistler in the Rushes.

In her hands she took the sharpened stone.

Nobody questioned or regretted your death:
“A crash in the night – so many enemies.”

Except the bluebottle who buzzed in circles
around your head, spiralling, spiralling upwards.
Death Blue, Decision Blue, Tear Blue, Last Bruise,
River-mirror Blue, Bright Blue of Freedom.

It disappeared as you sunk into eternal blue.

~

Loose Tongue

‘Experts disagree whether it is a skull of a woman or man. It’s smaller than other skulls found in the dock, but it has distinct male eyebrow ridges. There is evidence that this person may have died by from a weapon entering their skull. It may be the skull of a Roman settler or someone born in Iron Age Britain.’
The Harris Museum

No-one knew
if you were Roman or Briton,
noble or commoner, male or female,
only that you were not from the North.
The names of the gods mixed on your tongue
like wine and mead in the fortresses of the Otherworld.
“Vindos-Dis, Mars-Nodens, Apollo-Maponus,
Belisama-Minerva, Taranis-Jupiter.”

Your tongue got you into trouble
stirring the desires of the young but
allowing none to lift up your robe.

Everywhere you went there was gossip.

You’d come to the High Hills in purple
wearing sandals, golden bangles, golden rings
on your fingers and toes and a jewelled golden crown.
Come back down like madness to the Water Country,
ragged as a beggar, preaching of a world where
Roman and Briton lived in unison with no
divisions between man and woman or
wrong places to put one’s tongue.

A parochial chieftain hated your
androgyny and the hateful looseness
of your tongue so it was not long before
you were stripped naked and fishlike
beside the river before the gods.

The spear thrust into your mouth
did not stop your brazen tongue from
wagging on as the water embraced
you as both daughter and son.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for use of the photographs.

Englyns on Auroch Skulls

Auroch Skull, the Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staring from the museum
eye pits glare beneath fierce horns,
haunted wells of atrophy,
gazes flee their blind prisons

back to Taurean eras
of thunder down the river,
reeking ride of reddish hides
steaming wild to the water,

skidding sudden to a halt,
thick bones trembling, muscles taut,
bullish courage killed by fear
of men’s spears and swift assault.

Seeing skies alive with darts
herd wheels, swings and departs.
Knees buckle and hocks collapse
at the agony of barbs.

Most escape, some are slaughtered,
five stagger, tidal water
rises as they struggle and sink.
Its cold brink claims their corpses.

Tides turn. Sediments heap.
Silt and till on layered peat
bury bones in sunken sands,
erred, abandoned for centuries

until wrested from repose
five bovine skulls are disclosed
by dockland’s excavation,
shivering blind and exposed.

Breezes trace visages bared.
Tongueless trophies taste the air.
Denied thunder impaled rage
hangs displayed, an endless stare.

Skull songs lie trapped in the eyes.
Visions burst where times collide.
Bones cry for wind-swept stampede,
aurochs released to the wild.

Auroch Skulls, Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

* This poem is based on a simplified variation of Englyn Cyrch, which I learnt from Robin Herne’s Bard Song.