Half Moon and the Holly King

Half moon over Greencroft ValleyHalf bitten moon cries a waning scream.
Her severed pieces are brought by the stream
to the cavernous lair of the holly king
who grinds his axe on a sharpening stone
and prepares his block for the gore of heroes.

Silent and pensive he waits in his cave.
The moon arrives and his blood red eyes
are filled with silver swimming.
Outside the blackbirds sing
a song which knows no kenning.

The half formed moon describes her sorrows.
The king laments his lack of heroes-
vision waned and bravery gone.
Blackbirds sing their endless song
of an empty sky and bloodstained block…

then as hope elides a knight of dawn
approaches on a starless horse
with fire-lit eyes and maenad’s locks.
She boldly casts her gauntlet down
at the feet of the holly king.

The half formed moon departs from his arms.
He performs his task with an aura of calm.
The blackbirds watch in silence.
Then moon and lair are gone.
Dawn rides free, afraid, yet unharmed.

Holly, Greencroft Valley

Awenydd

I.
As the longest night looses
darkest claws I walk amongst shadows
at dawn where moonlight floods
through the arms of trees
and a solitary lamppost lights the vale.

Lamppost, Greencroft ValleyII.
River-trees stand stark and tall,
consistent in her mind’s
unravelling of currents and tides,
cormorants and gulls,
a ragged heron.

RibbleIII.
The host’s roar to a lullaby
quells as moon leads dawn
over chiming hills to be swallowed
by cloud as the hunt returns
to graveyard and mound.

Moon over Castle HillIV.
My lord of the fay
makes his presence known.
He speaks to the mist within my bones
like the lych gate unfastening,
awenydd– my magic word.

Lych gate, St Mary's ChurchV.
The spirit paths are mine
to walk for an evanescent pulse
of dawn. Time stands still
from vale to hill and the stream
sings: awenydd, awenydd.

Fish House Brook

Wild Hunt Villanelle

When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
Hurtling from the deeps and bowers of unseen Annwn
They raze all life with their sundering might,

Sweeping heavens black warriors of starry white
Unite with rebel cries to form a spectral fugue.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Cities tremble as the harrowing horns descry
Ghost white horses, hounds of death and long lost truth.
They raze all life with their sundering might

As they gather up the souls of the dead in flight
Striking with a fear none but their kindred can endure.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Bringing down the skies and singing back the light
Around our fires only hope can see us through.
They raze all life with their sundering might

Then vanish to Annwn from tumultuous heights
Ending the old year and heralding in the new.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
They raze all life with their sundering might.

Peneverdant, A Lunar Cycle

I. Dark Moon

On a dark moon
the lady in the ivy
winds down the dark hill
and the falling graves.

All memory
is sliding into darkness,
the river’s tides
her open mouth.

She is waiting
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

The moon is dark
over the river-
an eye, a maelstrom
between the worlds.

The fleet are ready,
the church is empty,
graves as hollow
as the old green hill.

She will be waiting
in the ivy
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

II. New Moon

All is darkness
but the splash of the tide,
the wing of an owl.

Lady Ivy
recounts her losses
on the hill
and the bank
where the hangman
wore his cowl.

They are waiting
in the maelstrom eye
of the new moon-
the river’s entryway
to living day
and deep Annwn.

They are waiting,
her hidden tribe
on their oaken boats
in a slit of light,
an opening moonbeam
to row through
the night
to the old green hill.

III. Moon First Quarter

There is wisdom
in the eyes of an owl-
a demand,
a categorical imperative.

Behind cumulonimbus clouds
secretly moon’s orb
is swelling.

They row.
History is written
in their woad-
gods and goddesses,
an oak king,
the lakes and water courses
of their oaken fleet,
the moon’s eye
in the shining river
and all the laws of the deep.

IV. Full Moon

The moon is full
behind the clouds.
She casts no light
on the empty boats,
the processional route
around the old green hill,
the moving river of woad.

Lantern bearers
pass the old iron rails,
the gloomy gathering of graves
to assemble on the mound,
igniting the beacon fire.

By the wing of an owl
the clouds are moved.
The moon looks down,
victorious.

They salute her orb
in the shining river,
the gods of the hill
and the deep.

On this night
of opened graves
anything is possible
in the light of the beacon fire
before the lambent eye of the moon.

V. Moon Last Quarter

Night has fallen
from the moon’s closing eye.

The owl has flown
to the hunt.

The fire gone cold
with the lanterns’ glow
is eclipsed by street lamps
and brake lights.

The by-pass roars
by the old green hill.
The river is concreted
back in her new course.

Lady Ivy
winds down
the hill and the graves.
She waits
for the tribe to row
to the river-moon
on their oaken boats,
to her maelstrom-eye
between the worlds.

Birch Wood

Birch trees. Carr Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a land of ash with no future.
Out of the ice age they came, colonizers
Silver-black and delicately snake skinned,
Shedding white edged leaves on the ash-clad winds

And singing do you remember, remember
The ice age and peat and lost Vindolanda,
Sentinel cities and burying oaths
Enstyled on bright birch to placate the world?

And singing do you remember, remember
The strange black peal of the blacksmith’s hammer,
Street lights of amber and echoing roads,
Cities estranged by the gathering smoke?

And singing do you remember, remember
How empire fell that fatal November,
Civilized monuments crashing to dust,
Swaying white fields and the soft song of ghosts?

Silver-black and delicately snake skinned,
Shedding white edged leaves on the ash-clad winds
Out of the ice age they came, colonizers.
Their land was ash, with an unknown future.

Birch trees, Carr Wood

Lady of the Oak

I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.

A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.

“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.

His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.

I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.

In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.

The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.

Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”

Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”

I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”

Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.

The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.

I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”

My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.

The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.

Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.

“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”

I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.

I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.

I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.

Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”

Oak, St Mary's graveyard, Castle Hill

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.

Calling

Before my calling I slept in a glass coffin.
No-one knew if I was live or dead until
I raised my head. And still they are pondering.

Whilst I slept I watched processions
of black clad men carrying coffins,
who march here still putting time
to death, brief as dragonflies.

Their echo beats loud. In woodlands
at March I search for a heartbeat, whilst
mad winds whirl the winter skies overhead.

Roads steal sound. Pylons warp every sense.
Yet when I look the past in the eye it looks back.
They need us now as much as we need them
and the people of the future need us again.

For live or dead there is no rest, no place
to hide nor coffins left, only time processing
through both worlds to a fathomless end.

Mist on the Holme

The Ribble from MiddleforthMist on the Holme-
the perfect phantom of a morning.
Bridges fade. The river finds her old routes.
Allotments and playing fields resume their archipelago.
Over thickening silt rough currents rush.
I am knee deep in mud, stumbling through rushes.
Gulls flit like ghouls with beaks of fog.
I hear the oar of a ferryman break the churning water
to claim my coin and take me home beyond the distant shore.