To drink is to borrow
Joy from tomorrow.
Now who’ll repay
Today’s loan to yesterday?
But a blue sky
Wakens this fly
From some narrow winter sanctuary
And black, fat, out of season
It tups our windows with a warty snout.
Oh put the horror out –
Let the rasping demon
Adoring the flawless winter sky.
MY NEW WINDOWS
Where the autumn wind whips round
Four floors above ground
I’m an old man upside down.
Storms in the far north
Gather for their going forth,
And since such beasts can slip
A blade through the least nick
No mere measuring will do
To fit these windows tight and true.
Therefore I hang
And shape and shave and smooth and sand –
Quickly, quickly, since I race
The planet’s winter-turning face.
Yes its old face turns winterward
But still my darling will be warm
If I’m away, and can’t get home.
The moon broke free
From racing clouds and she
Tearing her clothes followed me there
Through the black streets with her mad hair
Till I turned again home –
Where I have known
My heart’s safekeeping
But now the woman weeping.
TO MY YOUNG WIFE
She buys these flimsy clothes and shoes,
Unsuited to our northern skies.
She has a secret dream to use
These follies where her future lies.
She’ll taste a hanging wreath of vine
And sniff the hidden truffle place
And tread her meadow’s boundary line
In floating silk and trailing lace.
She’ll sleep till noon and talk all night
With easy tears or heathen joy.
She’ll be the postman’s sly delight
And terrify the baker’s boy.
Her crazy sisterhood will tell
Tales from the whole world wide
Of faithless men they loved too well
And kindly men they cast aside.
“Alas, les dames folles come once more,”
The town will cry to see them call,
And lock the church and close the store –
And she’ll be the maddest dame of all.
Shake out this lace and shout, “Ah oui!”
Put on these foolish shoes and dance.
Oh but I love to think of thee
Glad in the golden fields of France.
AT RING O’ BELLS: FOR MY FATHER
This is the English light, I like to think,
That showed our fathers’ fathers when they made
Canals lacquered with sky, rails that gripped
Distance in cutlery – and cast their grain,
For the green splash patient. At their bucket’s brim,
The gleaming mirror reeled but did not spill.
Shadowless light! Here where their furrows rolled
Over like swimmers its straight-edge lay;
Their file found it under rust; it rode
The new nail hammered home; and blazed
Spat in the ditcher’s hand. Pacing his map,
Bright dividers mocked the sailor’s step.
But look: mum is coming from the cancer wing.
On this canal bridge her neighbour says,
“Crows crossed your roof today. I think
Your man can’t live.” And the x-ray stain,
Black birds, and wicked old poisoner of light
Were right, were right.
EVE’S COMPLAINT TO JOHN MILTON
Joint winner of a ‘Spectator’ competition
O pitiless bore. O monster. O Milton –
With bum-numbing dullness you dared to create an
Unreadable screed, a dirge that dumps guilt on
Me for intriguing with devious Satan.
Yet never a word on my manual labour
While hitched to a hick with his mind on manuring,
Nor, worse, on the curse of the Lord as our neighbour –
All-knowing, all-nosy and past all enduring.
Yes I fell for the Serpent but ask no one’s pardon
Since tedious Eden had driven me crazy;
And I thrilled to his sinuous girth in my garden
While Adam administered mulch to a daisy.
Hypocritical Milton! So yours was the worst sin,
Imposed on us all at unspeakable cost:
I merely damned millions to Hell with the first sin,
But yours is the torture called ‘Paradise Lost’.
“ROMAN TILE WITH FOOTMARKS OF A DOG”
In imprints of that
Across and off the tile, we saw
Wayward joy that still traverses
Paths beyond the potter’s curses.
FROM A TO BEER
Let me get from A to beer,
For all my so-called friends appear
Jeering, sneering, insincere
Their shining smiles a mere veneer.
Oh hurry me from A to beer.
For they, I fear, have seen me clear:
The dregs of this defunct career,
Regret its only souvenir,
Conclude another nothing year,
So get me, friend, from A to beer.
This lousy Now, unhappy Here,
While age and worse come creeping near,
Consuming what I most hold dear.
I’d crawl the whole terrestrial sphere
To get myself from A to beer.
Oh rev the engine, crash the gears,
Let’s let the slipstream dry our tears
And flee to be where yelling “Cheers”
We swing amid the chandeliers,
Refugees from A to beers.
In the glare of oncoming lights,
A thing I refuse to feel
Lays a hand on the wheel.
Some rage or loss
Perhaps, and I think to cross.
Written in his Christmas card
Cousin Dave, your cheeky wit’s
Wasted on a prostate tumour.
The growth that grips your wedding bits
Ignores all pawky northern humour –
For cancer’s dull, a fool that fills
Our lives with boredom, pain and pills.
In fact the thing itself’s a bore
With cells that replicate and then
Repeat the thing they did before
Then re-enact it all again.
A carcinoma’s only mission’s
To grind us down with repetitions.
A bore of bores that furthermore,
Settled like a dreaded guest,
Hopes to provoke an endless snore,
To bore us all to boundless rest,
And feels defeated till it’s drawn
Our jaw to one enormous yawn.
And in the end, when thee and me
Decline in time as all men must
To grey anonymous non-entity,
Homogenised to nameless dust,
Then cancer knows it’s done its bit
Since we’ve become as dull as it.
So lad, no waggish chat diverts
The blob your knob is nobbled by.
The crab that grabs you where it squirts
Is stumped by your ironic eye.
Old friend, they’ll mend your end, meanwhile
We’ve missed that wink, that pirate guile:
Forget the fool that cramps your style –
It’s us that need your rascal smile.
(Dave Heaton is fine now. I said: “You’re
back to your old self, unfortunately.”)
THE POET’S PRAYER
Let the bitch, Success,
In her red dress
With a glass and a laugh and a smeared kiss
Briefly a friend for life
Out-shout my wife
Who says, “We can’t go on living like this.”
A LANCASTRIAN’S TERROR OF TODMORDEN
God keep me out of Todmorden
Where folk will stand you drinks and then
A pickled egg – excepting when
For Tod, astride the Calder’s banks,
Is half in Yorks and half in Lancs.
Oh Todmorden, oh lord, no thanks.
In Todders folk will say, “Well met!
How’s t’gout? Are’t courting yet?
They’re open: shall us have a wet?”
Or sell their kids on th’internet.
They’ll greet you with “Ey up! Grand morning!”
Or kick your shins with zero warning,
Depending on which bit they’re born in.
Oh Todmorden, oh fearsome spot
Where folk will give you all they’ve got
To ease your lot –
Or maybe not:
For even when they’re worth a mint
Yorkshiremen will say they’re skint
Then scurry off to skin a flint.
Oh Todmorden, oh fearsome site,
Where folk are breezy, blythe and bright,
Or else prefer their roses white
And wads shut tight.
They’ll say “God bless you” when you sneeze,
Or else forget their “Ta” and “Please”
Then creep away to pare a cheese.
For Todmorden’s two-faced like Janus:
One bloke does owt to entertain us
The next along need not detain us,
So Lanky Todders, grab your bikes
And flee this tribe that no one likes,
Whose scowls inspect us
And then reject us;
From Todmorden, oh lord protect us;
Whose smiles unnerve us,
Who don’t deserve us;
From Todmorden, dear god preserve us!
(Trivial quibbles have been voiced about
the changing locations of the Lancs/Yorks
border – but I’m taking no chances. God
keep me out of Todmorden!
PS: Salt and flour with nothing good in
Is Yorkshire folks’ idea of pudding.)
With his own
With his no-chalk
On the black, black, blackboard,
He is ignored.
The children play,
Lost in their frolics and fights,
And still he writes,
Skrauking his finger-end
Till at last they attend.
Written in her Christmas card
Our marriage rites are consecrated thus:
Old jokes, long talks, slow walks; meetings for sweet
Confabulations as we fold a sheet;
Shared desserts, hand-holding on the bus;
And then to stroll and soberly discuss
Along an endless rainy shopping street
What chocolate treat, or meat, or bedroom suite,
All things considered, would be best for us.
Yes, we dismiss those idle high-flown vows
Of perfect love, and love for ever more;
Instead with empty chat I thee espouse,
Of football teams, TV, and her next door.
So dip your biscuit in my coffee cup
To plight thy troth – and then that washing up.
Valentine’s Day, in Tesco
The shopgirl smiles to see me wait in line
Clutching the supermarket cheap bouquet
With other sad-sack husbands who display
Their trinkets, chocolates, cards and cut-price wine –
Absurd embodiments of love divine.
Look at this fool, she thinks: creeping, grey,
Disqualified from love despite the day,
An ageing, patient, shame-faced valentine.
Or maybe not. Perhaps she smiles to see
Plodding losers gathered to renew
These yearly tokens of fidelity,
Who trudge and toil to keep this rendezvous,
Knowing their dull endurance goes to show
New rings may shine, but how these old ones glow.
She’s in love with Hate and wants to be alone.
She’s drawing the curtains and locking the door.
When Hate loves her up with a dry old thigh bone,
“Yes!” she instructs him, and “More, darling, more!”
Her friends sniff keyholes and rattle the cat-flap.
They listen at drainpipes and climb the wisteria.
Why are two bony footprints pressed in her bath-mat?
What’s that xylophone smile in the dim interior?
But she turns from their words with a deaf and a dumb shrug.
This “friendship” garbage they’re shouting fools no one.
With x-ray eyes for humanity’s humbug
She takes Hate to bed for a fast then a slow one.
“Oh Hate, my bone idol, you’re past all improving,
Your kisses as cool as a bone china chalice!”
And she begs him incessantly, “Darling, do move in
Your doggie called Danger and moggie called Malice!”
And she’s squeezing his hand like a handful of dice,
She’s softly locking her boudoir door.
Her nipples get stiff in his whispers like ice,
And she’s not coming out, no never no more.
ME WITHOUT YOU
A neighbour-hater, window-breaker,
Sending round the undertaker,
Kitten kicking, infant hitting,
Doorbell ringing, doorstep shitting;
Pencil-necked, an ineffectual
Snotty pocket intellectual,
Mocking modern men and manners,
Menu spellings, grocers’ grammars,
With snobby comments, snooty looks,
Nasty notes in library books,
Petty letters sent unsigned
ALL IN CAPS AND UNDERLINED;
A bedsit Buddha,
Stalled on “Coulda-shoulda-woulda”,
Slurping turpentine alone,
Carpet cleaner, cheap cologne,
Then that bedsit sink for pissing
Then with custard, mustard, whips,
Rubber bands and cycle clips,
Horsehair shirts and barbed wire hats,
Undies made of welcome mats,
Rabid rats in trouser pockets,
Nipples clipped to lighting sockets –
My messy masturbation ritual;
And since assorted ticket stubs,
Bar-bills from our favourite pubs,
Orphaned socks, a widowed shoe,
Booby-trap my room with you,
Prowling round your darkened garden,
Your pruning glove to ease my hard-on,
Launching love notes wrapped round rocks,
Sighing through your letterbox,
Vowing to myself “I’ll limit her
Love life with a piss perimeter,”
Starved of kisses, shelter, sleep
I’d weep, weep, weep, weep.
TIGER, TIGER, NOT SO BRIGHT
And brush off grass
Stuck to the cheek of their ass.
The tiger, however,
Bits of stuff unless they tickle.
Inseparable from what he sees:
Today he ate
Tomorrow he’ll feed
His red paws come and go.
His ear is which
Breeds an occasional itch.
And fleas harass
What he does not know is his ass.
But his empty head
By divine right strikes us dead.
(Burying a coffin displaces a coffin-sized volume
of earth, which must be wheelbarrowed away. At
Ilfracombe cemetery, this was a long haul. When
we buried someone in their spouse’s grave, we
smashed in the old coffin to fill it with earth)
It must have seemed like Judgment Day, the din
When me and Charlie stamped their coffins in –
But yet they did not stir, despite
Torrents of the long-lost light.
Now I am old. I see these sleepers will
Keep their council underground until
Charlie, me and worlds are gone.
Undeceived, they’ll slumber on.
MY WIFE IS BEAUTIFUL AND I AM GLAD
(Written in Chieko’s birthday card)
You say that beauty lasts a day.
I say a day’s what we inhabit;
The fact her beauty cannot stay
Confirms how wise I was to grab it.
So though her looks are merely mortal
I’ll frolic like a love-struck lad
And seize the fleeting joy and chortle:
My wife is beautiful and I am glad.
You say I mustn’t judge her worth
By chance genetics. But you see,
I merely like her lucky birth:
I love the fact she married me.
And though her disconcerting kindness
Makes you shout, “She must be mad,”
I celebrate selective blindness:
My wife is beautiful and I am glad.
It’s true we make a funny pairing,
She all loveliness and I
So old and plain you keep declaring,
“Chieko, dear, in god’s name why?”
But I reply, “This silly spite,
Resenting what you’ve never had,
Promptly doubles my delight:
My wife is beautiful and I am glad.”
I’m glad, though mortal flesh is sinful
And outer grace defers to inner.
Of beauty’s balm I’ll sink a skinful
And reel around, a blissful sinner.
I’m sorry if your wife is ugly.
I’m sorry if my boasting’s bad.
I’m sorry but I’m sorry smugly:
My wife is beautiful and I am glad.
(With a hat-tip to Clive James’s “The Book of my Enemy has been Remaindered”)
ON THE PROPOSITION THAT ‘PAIN IS TRUTH’
I stubbed my toe.
The world said, “Told you so.”
AN ENGLISH SPINSTER, 1928
“Having lost their men, Englishwomen busy
themselves with mankind” – Benito Mussolini
We are the patient sisterhood
Of church bazaar and village hall.
We spend our lives in doing good.
We sweep the nave. We tend a stall
With penny scones and ha’penny teas
For the poor heathens overseas.
We are the ones who knit and bake,
Who calm the old and soothe the sick.
Down every lane for Jesu’s sake
Our bicycles go tick, tick, tick.
And willingly we lend a hand
For orphans in some distant land.
So when the squire or vicar says,
“I knew we might rely on you,”
Unruffled at that fearsome phrase
We bow the head, we vow to do
What only Englishwomen can
To ease the cruel trials of Man.
Thus engaged we do not miss
The comforts of the married state.
Girls in so-called wedded bliss
With husbands plainly second-rate
Unwillingly like us will learn
The best of men did not return –
But thought of “England, home and beauty”
And marched to meet the wicked Hun.
Each unflinching to his duty
Faced the fatal gas or gun,
And dreamed, perhaps, that there might be
A girl, in England, much like me.
FOR HIS NIECE
To send little Charlotte to schoo-el.
Let her run about in
Her red hat, laughin, shoutin.
Metre, I suppose, is just the French for yard,
Which is how I walk you to school.
But centipedes and millipedes are hard –
All those little black legs down the edge of your rule.
“My daddy can whistle”
With crimson cheek and bulging eye
Your daddy stuns each passer-by.
His Schubert song and Mozart air
Make double-decker drivers stare,
And braking hard on Blackpool Road,
Ten-ton lorries shed their load.
Indeed, so cunningly your dad employs
This ancient skill of butcher boys
And farmers in a turnip cart,
The ploughman and the thatcher’s art,
That most of all his talent stills
The local birdlife’s tweets and trills
With angel fluting that equates
Their artistry with squeaky gates –
For walking you in Ashton Park
His music mutes the tuneful lark,
And under shrubs on Tulketh Brow
The rowdy wrens are dumbstruck now.
Oh see the sulking song thrush turn
Resentfully to chew a worm!
Here come the winds of the world
To your lips to be woven to words,
And stars of the sky
Swarm to your eyes
To be looked upon:
Let it be done.
Look. These boxes of light
In a line are the days of your life
To be opened on trust:
Yes, and you must.
Out on the slope of the globe
Now you will go –
To walk, outwalk, this world, these limbs
Till you are nothing else but movement like the winds
And would cease if you stood
Like the winds would.
Father, I might call you son –
You, dead so young,
And I grown old. I picture you
In cap and clogs and boiler suit
Tending the great eight-wheeler,
And me, some hale old wheezer,
Who stops and asks
About the road you’ll shortly drive –
With a strange too-friendly smile.
But, fond of the young,
Doubtless I’d talk too long –
And might advise,
Being so very old and wise,
The proper, careful course
For some young fellow setting forth.
Eager to go,
You’d only think, “I know. Aye, I know.”
So I cannot delay,
Even in dreams, your hasty going away –
Handsome and young –
That made in time a father of your son.
ON THE HUBBLE DEEP-FIELD IMAGE
All gone, the all-wise fools
Who said that souls
Cavort on coals
Down in the Devil’s dancing schools.
And imps will pinch and twist, they said,
With witty pain
Regiments of yelping dead.
But might those folk have argued thus:
“Such tireless toil
With boiling oil –
Oh see Eternity’s concern for us!”
Now, drowned and dispersed,
Lost in the vault this light traversed,
We are the first
To know death’s worst.
Such a bitter delicious wit – except
We grieved to see him ridicule his wife,
And she so uncomplaining while he kept
Sneering at her staunch devoted life
Of serving him. A cat-like playing, saying
She was martyred and glad, she stroked the spur;
Laughing; laughing at her more for staying,
Until we grieved, who had not seen like her
This big man blubbering, down on his knees,
His arms out, follow her down the hall –
His tears and the hatstand falling, his pleas,
And seen his humour’s finest stroke of all:
Self-haters disrespect us till we show
A proper judgment and decide to go.
Remember how we met. Didn’t we each
Laugh at the light in our animal eyes
And smirk and pose and see no need for speech,
Both in our pride convinced, ‘I am the prize –
An accomplished lover, this my small sport.’
So we laughed, and for fancy pleased the beast
Without risk: how could a giver go short;
How could the host not be fed at a feast.
So what brought on this viciousness and glee?
I know: your double-dealing was the start;
Then came the clever cruelties from me,
Till each perceived we held a hostage heart.
Now with what vigour, what alarms love lives:
Each day, new ways of killing the captives.
AT ST LEONARD’S
Cold on the graveyard wall, I sit
Watching till the wheezing sexton says: “Maybe…”
And passes the ledger. Yes, this is it:
Dad; a stray great aunt; some baby –
Getting a stone at last. And – as I thought –
Mum, climbing the steep hill, brought
Grief to the wrong grave for forty years.
Lord what a joke! Her on her knees (my god),
The scissors, kitchen spoon, and doubtless tears,
Titivating that other poor sod
Also with no stone. Two rows down the hill,
Dad was thinking: “Gormless. Gormless still.”
She needn’t know, I think – she’ll make the climb
Up that sharp hill only one last time.
Is a big red button labelled ‘Do Not Press’.
SONG IN SUMMER
Well, for an old man on a summer afternoon
To sleep is sweet.
Full as skirts, the curtains lift and swoon.
Beside me on the bed a brazen slab
Of bare sun. The clock stares. From the street,
Birds, the cries of children, and a passing cab –
But every interruption comes too soon,
For with a sigh
I’ve vowed to let the rowdy world go by.
In vain, no doubt. But let me wish it true:
I’d drift unthinking through a world made new,
Instead of fearful, disbelieving, bitter
That I never roared, broke glass, ran wild,
Maimed a neighbour, shagged his babysitter,
Cried ‘We’re dying!’ at the bus-stop queue –
Too scared to see
Death is an absolute, so life must be.
Good luck to all such nutters in the gutter
Not for me their hopeless furies, but a
Life-long, smirking, cowardly parade,
Choked with politeness till at last I go
Apologetic to the butcher’s blade,
Considerately lift my chin, and mutter
For my birth, breath, blood, heartbeat, hard-ons.
Therefore this sleeping says, “The world has won.
Now let me hide.”
This is age. This is what days have done –
While all those frightened heroes who can smell
Death in obscurity, and suicide
In self-restraint, sing in a prison cell,
Punch their children, snivel, steal a gun,
While passion roars
Through the house of the heart, slamming doors.
No thanks. I’ll wake, sleep and wake once more,
To savour sleep.
The clock is twitching through its semaphore,
The sunlit curtain curtseys, flirts and sways,
But once again I’m diving deep, oh deep.
A calm like hatred in the clock’s blank gaze
But my answer to its staring is a snore.
Asleep, half waking,
Lord let me yawn through the great leave-taking.
Rachel said, ‘There’s a dead wasp in every fig,’
And now each fig,
Fig tart, fig chutney, cheese and fig,
Fig jam, baked fig, fig and apple cake, and honey-roasted fig
Comes with the tiny wasp that crawled inside
And laid its eggs and died.
Rachel, you made a fig of my head
And wasps crawl there instead.
THERE IS NO BETTER
There is no better
Way than mine to don a sweater.
I’m an utter
Genius at spreading butter.
No one but me
Knows how best to turn a key.
Not for toffee
Can you lot make coffee.
And when I take a tap apart
With my incisive secret art
Oh what pleasure fills my heart!
I will not show you what
Way I tie a granny knot,
Or how I do
That little thing to wipe my shoe,
Or drive a screw
And then to have the screw run true.
I’ll take my secrets where
Others wait who did not share
Their sly delighted private tricks
For knapping flints or killing ticks
Or washing wigs or swinging picks
Or shining swords or laying bricks
Or trimming smoky candle-wicks,
And hid their skill
And hide it still.
CLEARING HEADSTONES, BANKSIDE
Against the black, cracked, Jack The Ripper bricks
Prop these worn
Milestones on the Glory Road.
The Londoners crumbling under them are dumb
With the boss
Of Cockney glottal stops.
If any soared to the Lord’s front doors
From their nest of bones,
They’ve long since flown.
Licked biscuit-thin in the river wind,
The river rain has wept away,
Like well-oiled old bow-legged boatmen sloping home,
Their shoulders roll
As they rock to the rotten wall.
And if the Resurrection robes of those below
Were stopped by a stone toe,
Now they can go.
Life is too long
Oh it goes on and on
I was young but that’s gone
And all day the sun
Shows what I haven’t done
FOR MY FATHER, WHO DIED YOUNG
What should I reply –
Lost between living and dead,
Meeting his kindly eye –
If he, insistent, said:
“How do you fill, my lad,
Years I never had?”
“Oh, sleep and eat,” I’d say,
“Work, too, alas.
And friends in their fond way
Help the years pass.
Much like, it’s true,
A million others do.”
But what then if he,
In the dim daybreak
There by the grey sea
That slides between sleep and awake,
Seemed with his quiet air
Doubtful, waiting there?
I’d say: “Look what I made:
Roads, that railway track;
Seven years with spade,
Sweat, and bent back;
And books, god knows –
Though there’s never a shortage of those.”
But then, feeling my days
Of thin stuff dismissed
Under his troubled gaze,
At last I might resist:
“Born provincial, poor and plain,
I built a life with back and brain –
“What more could I give,
What could any man do,
That your old bones might live?
Could I fill the years for two?
Rejoice how far I came
With neither money nor name.”
But the dawn is silent now,
As I wake to my old task –
To wonder again how
I’d answer what he cannot ask,
Feeling still that I
Somehow should reply.
UNCLE SIDNEY TUCKS YOU IN
My child, for once I’m feeling kind,
So now you’re washed and dried and goodnight-kissed
And tucked-up snug
With one last hug,
I’ll soothe your anxious infant mind
With this good news: monsters don’t exist.
Yes, in the night-time children think
Armies of hungry dark come hunting you,
And smell your fear
And creeping near
Will rip your heart, and eat, and drink.
Now, now, don’t cry: these nightmares just aren’t true.
And if for all your fearful screaming
Dad just stirs and swears and stays asleep,
And even mum
Declines to come,
And granny thinks, ‘She’s only dreaming,”
And Uncle Sidney smiles to hear you weep,
Keep calm, my dear, be good:
No scaly horrors come on leather wings,
No dripping jaw
Will eat you raw,
No ghouls with tubes remove your blood.
So stop your sobbing, child: there’s no such things –
Nothing with hooks in either fist
And gloves of blood to either hairy wrist
Has come to kill you
And splash and spill you,
And stab and bite and rip and twist.
Good night! Sleep tight! Remember: monsters don’t exist.
HOME AFTER CHRISTMAS
Our cold house will not forgive us.
Water perks in the pipes but still it is comfortless,
The phone as cold as a conch when we say, ‘Thank you for our lovely Christmas.’
How slowly the kettle boils and how its breath billows
Up to the ceiling and weeps down the windows
As we hug cups two-handed, in our coats indoors.
O house, sulky house, you were left alone
And winter crept in and soaked to your bones.
But wake up, cold house, because your friends are home –
Hallooing through the caves of your corridors,
Dancing from the toilet on the cold floors
Because the seat was freezing like Inuit ice holes
And we couldn’t quite sit in case our bum froze,
But we shout and stamp and bustle about
Into every room and chase the winter out –
So hurry up and stop your pouting, house, O house.
Oh let’s go to bed and leave the house warming,
And lovely and cosy with only our noses showing
With our hot water bottles all night snoring
Then get up all warm and stare out at folk in the cold morning.
THE OLD DOG
An old man’s life is shorter than a dog’s.
One birthday it’s an all-night knees-up,
But by the next his vitals seize up,
And then it’s naps and pap and moaning monologues.
But these same years that deal me blow on blow
Enhance your gifts to match my loss –
As wise and kind and calm you cross,
Unblemished, middle-age’s changeless broad plateau.
No miracle will come. Therefore I
Remain your grim memento mori.
Oh warm me with reflected glory,
Dear, till this old dog lies down at last to die.
I SEE A GOURMET
I see a gourmet eat his lips,
A waitress carve her fingertips,
The butcher’s window makes me come,
Above a plate I bare my bum,
And all distinctions stretch like skin
And thin and thin
Across the horrors coiled within.
But more and more is best forgot:
My hopes erode, my parents rot,
The killing years
Demand more scabs between the ears.
So let me, mounted well astride
This turdish tide,
Be once again self-stupified.
For though the surgeon’s screwing on,
While knowing what he lies upon,
With all his lust it’s certain if he
Thought at all would lose his stiffie –
Yet how I always picture this
Trench of piss
While sucking up a hungry kiss.
So let me then at least be good
To other blinded bags of blood,
And swear my love grows deeper, truer
Though through and through her
Drains the dismal double sewer.
I see we cannot lift our chin
Above the filth we’re buried in.
I see our brains must marinate
In bloody broths of dread and hate.
I see the warning
Dropped from bottoms every morning.
I see it all through frightened eyes
Whose gormless orbs like bubbles rise
To briefly flit
Adrift across a latrine pit.
With fear ahead and grief behind,
Pray god becloud this raddled mind,
Half deaf, half blind,
To walk with filthy humankind.
Says it’s unfair
That people ask him about Iraq:
They should look forward not back.
George W Bush
Hot from “clearing brush”
Sits in his Crawford orchard
Thinking of men he tortured.
Said Tony and W,
“Lord, does war trouble you?”
But God had no issues
With the tearing of human tissues.
Has angina again. He
Says, “For a start,
Don’t say I’ve got no heart.”
Couldn’t be calmer
About Guantanamo Bay.
“What the hell,” he thinks. “Let it stay.”
“Our neighbours stink,” my dog declares.
Our neighbours’ dog repeats the line.
I leave my dog to shout like theirs
Because they leave their dog like mine.
And if they leave their dog thuswise
It proves their dog and they agree.
I’m glad therefore my dog replies.
I’ll let my dog speak out for me.
But oh this shouting night and day
Day and night inflames my head,
To hear a dog insanely say
The thing another dog has said.
But still my dog must speak since he
With doggy loyalty defies
By day and night so doggedly
My neighbours’ dog’s relentless lies.
I hate my dog for shouting so
But hate my neighbours’ dog the worst.
I’d love to kick my dog although
My neighbours have to kick theirs first.
But oh this shouting night and day
Day and night is never done
And drives my dizzy brain astray
And can’t go on and can’t go on.
Cheney Limbaugh Bolton Bush,
George John Dick Rush,
Long ago were called to war –
And swiftly hid behind the door.
But then they grew too old to fight
And strangly altered overnight:
“We must endure. Just one last push,”
Say Cheney Limbaugh Bolton Bush.
In Vietnam when bullets flew
His comrades cried, “Where’s Double-you?
Oh see behind the door he stands
With Rush and Richard holding hands.”
With current wars they huff and puff
And boldly cry, “We must hang tough.”
But long ago they said, “No no,
Nam’s not for us: the poor will go.”
And thus they hid while others died
And in a dying vision cried,
“Oh see behind the door, oh see
Bolton’s boots fill up with pee!”
Says Bush, “Once settled on the use of force
We’ll see it through, we’ll stay the course.”
The dead rise up demanding, “Who
Is this ‘we’ who’ll see it through?”
Cheney Limbaugh Bolton Bush.
George, Dick, John, Rush;
When the bugles blew for war
Swiftly hid behind the door.
On the nine Afghan children machinegunned by
a NATO helicopter while gathering firewood, March 2011
This bit of lead to the child’s heart?
Here’s what an exile dreamed, a pundit thought;
This is a book, this what a scholar taught;
Here’s what the statesman said, the expert wrote;
Here they made the gun, here loaded the boat;
Here’s where a general planned, a soldier fought;
And here’s what poisons everything they sought –
This bit of lead in a child’s heart.
Sick with rage I did not speak
Of Blair’s wars against the weak.
Only now I voice this hate –
Too late, too late.
Blood in the water
“Quiet with all this blinking”
At my persistent breathing.
So why my pride
As I cower and wince and hide?
Oh she outsulks a stone,
And I think
As I wander alone
“Let the stone split, and I drink.”
Give me the kiss of water.
O Lord preserve
The savour of sea on her undercurve –
Anchovy, oyster, ambergris:
And Lord deliver
My lips to her nether
Thine was the care
That numbered (like mine) her maidenhair
As salt as Sinbad’s beard, and fell
Through buxom waves
Down to her sea-cave
Thou art the Lord.
Thy finger has folded her firth or fjord
Or foamflecked loch. Oh let me be
Drinking her inland
And my devotions,
Sure as the loom of Thy woven oceans,
For this be thus: securely glued
Here on my knees
Mouthing her South Sea
Over again this tale is told:
An ancient lizard’s coils enfold
The maiden bright as burnished gold.
Handsome heroes young and bold
Lie around him, torn and cold,
For what he cannot have he’ll hold.
Pity the lizard grown so old.
Alas for the maiden unconsoled.
HITTING THE WIFE
That’s not it.
Never a hit.
No kind of blow so much
As a flick or tap or pat or some such –
Though it came
From what I can’t recall or name:
A black roar
Bursting the door.
All this on a day
When the woman drives her mate away
With “Old goat.
Bald, thin legs, old turkey throat.”
Wretched, a thorn in her side.
We sit now
And hope for peace somehow,
Having known those roaring places
Where the lonely claw their faces.
But flick or tap or hit
Yet I admit
The blackness behind it.
I am awake because
A night wind is bullying the house
Like a tongue a tooth,
Working it loose.
Shall I get up now
And tiptoe down?
Beyond the bedroom door
Dark is at home,
Crowds the stairs
Sits in my chairs
While I lie and listen
And feel a rope tighten.
I shall go down
Through the pool of the night-time house,
And find the hall
Where darkness lines the walls,
Where the door
Shakes to the tongueless roar,
Where the draught through the keyhole feels
Cold as a key
That I might turn
To make the wind’s insanities my own.
What Adam of our family found this place;
Laboured around its cage of lanes; abed,
Stretched across its fields; became
All of the local clay that made his bread;
And then was old, with rain for miles, and days
With no one in the lane except the breeze
That bared his bones at last like winter trees?
How he would dream – but in the end
Was frittered into England once again.
You were our Adam and Eve – all foretold,
The water droplets numbered, dust motes known,
Gestures weighted when you poured
Light from the water jug. Such years in store
To fill with naming of a world!
Now one lorryload
Carries us kids, the broken home,
And you to fifty years of widowhood
Across flat pasturelands that show
How far you came, and now must go.
Mountains crowd Bethesda
Gaunt as chapel clergy
The stony road to heaven.
Crosslegged at their feet
Turns from the sour land
From the wind and the weak complaints of sheep
And opens the slate like a book.
On Sundays from their slopes
He watches with a frown
Far off over shut pubs
The red ships on the bare sea.
Happy the fellows that wed
Their second wife first.
They’re bedded and fed,
Then fussed at, then nursed.
At midnight in the cold mid-ocean
Waves pursue their proper motion
Pressing on supremely free
So dark and lonely, none may see
Their shoulders turned on you and me.
(Written in her birthday card)
Perfect as plastic your public face,
A mask to meet the busy town
Whose fools in suits will crowd you round
But must not share this private place
Where you can be
Only beautiful to me.
Sleepy and scatty,
Hair all ratty,
Can hardly speak
Except to say
And how you swear
Trying to control your hair,
And curse again
Searching for your purse again.
Sulky, sloppy, slovenly –
Only beautiful to me.
Hurried, harried, now you flee
Perfect as porcelain out to work
Where handsome men will bow and smirk –
Oh darling, never let them see
Your self behind your artistry
This private place where you must be
Only beautiful to me.
My chain – a crushed cage, dragging jail,
Dragon’s back, long frown, crowd’s spit.
Earth’s tears, the jewellery of slaves,
Mouths of woe, ready fists. Or this:
Failure, shame, the weight of yesterdays –
As each new morning shows
Link by link how my chain grows.
Do not leave me – though
I have no right to tell you so.
No rights for the ugly,
While you grow more lovely.
Except ... perhaps ... only stay, stay,
Recalling what we were or are,
Or this or some remembered day.
Look, I lay my hand upon you like a scar.
A furlong of turds
Laid around a lake of piss –
Thus I have returned
From this and back again to this
Where I am sick at heart,
Sick in a thunder cloud
Of decades of fart.
It is the stink of self,
Of what I can not forgive –
This cask of flesh
Full of the filth that lets me live.
All day in your glass-bottomed boat
Cruising those pinks and blues –
Sea blush, sea bruise –
How will you sleep
Having seen these creatures of the deep?
How you hug yourself
Smug in your sulking.
O exile, outcast, sour gnome
Who says “I didn’t ask to be born”
You are corpse-bad,
My enemy and my end.
Be gone. I will not listen
To your terrifying prediction.
Lord, let me snore
Face down in her knicker drawer –
Where beyond all fault or flaw
Lies the perfection that we weep toward.
And not reality’s inky scribbles.
The green Atlantic still enraged
Beats its brains against the rocks.
It’s not the headlong hate that shocks
But how this creature so long caged
I walked this seascape once before
Glad that its passion matched my own –
Then broke my heart against a stone.
How can I watch the ocean war
Against the shore
And break its claws, and crack its jaw
And only to advance withdraw?
The fat back.
Ugly muscle lumps.
Hands for grappling, the shoulders hunched.
Hung from bones, this flesh
Ill fits. The chest pelt points
To where hair coils
Over the gross loins.
But the dull eyes watch.
The feet are set.
All is tipping forward, all
My progress a protracted fall.
Thus and thus. What it is. Just so.
I must work. Let me go.
From Parlick Hill I saw
Such a shaft of blinding light
Stab through the clouds to the dull fields below
Bright as a blade, sure as the law,
Sent down to rule our days,
That I admired the sight
But thought, We are happy in our crooked ways.
Should hunt incognito
But so much longs for you
He sings this song for you
(Just like me)
His life for a kiss.
‘YOU ARE HERE’ RUBBED OUT ON A ROADSIDE MAP
Wore it out.
So let us shrug, and smile, and boldly look about.
In my wife’s home town,
like something from a play,
This: strong in his leather apron, watching her,
Hands on his bench, unshiftable as if to say,
‘I do not change,’ the calm, fixed, craftsman-jeweller.
But strange, strange, his steady gaze, half-questioning,
Proud with a workman’s pride, fearlessly intense,
Till with a nervous laugh she takes the mended ring
And turns away – with me,
their disregarded audience.
‘He liked me once,’ she says, back in our rented room,
And weeps, turning the ring he gave her like a groom.
Gentle London stands aside
To give an old man pavement space,
And patient with my halting stride
Spreads its bland collective grace.
And barmaids smile and workmen chat,
Pretty girls indulge their kind
Colloquies of this and that
Till out of sight I’m out of mind.
Easy, heedless, thus this city
Sees my vigour overturned,
Shares its blind unthinking pity,
Generous and unconcerned.
Shut up, get lost, get out of my way –
I’m old and I’ve had enough
Of the world’s waste, folly, delay
And all the other goddam stuff,
That for the moment I’ve forgotten.
Watch out, take care, here I go
To burn, wreck, remake the State
Into something I don’t quite know
But it’ll be great
I’ll explain it all later –
Because right now the world’s filled
With desperate clowns and liars
Itching to get us all killed
In the belly of their thermo-nuclear fires.
Yes, I’ll die soon
But I won’t go for some buffoon –
For a touchy, vain, fragile, needy
Liar with every breath;
Selfish, bullying, crooked, greedy,
Who’ll blunder us all into megadeath.
And I say ‘Rage! Riot!’
While you say ‘Old man be quiet.’
So get lost, drop dead, get out of my sight
Because our poisoned modern age
Requires my senile spite
Needs my impotent rage –
So don’t make me ill
With your ‘Old man be still,’
You insolent pup
With your ‘Old man shut up,’
You little shit
With your ‘Put a sock in it.’
Or instead God send
Apathy, the old man’s friend.
My health is bad, my mind is worse,
It follows therefore I’ll abuse
My wife, my life, the universe,
The teeming everything I’ll shortly lose,
And doomed to dust,
Ease my leaving with disgust.
So let deluded youth declare
That Man gropes towards what’s right.
Instead, with justly earned despair
I’ll show our hate’s our heart’s delight,
A relish for atrocities.
Thus, through three score years and ten
I’ve watched our cruel kind return
To joyful wickedness again, again,
A happy hate we won’t unlearn:
Not fleeing from it
But dashing back like dogs to vomit.
So yes the hopeless old resent
What now I’m close enough to see:
The little that my life has meant,
The nothing that my death will be.
And yes I’m bitter.
But yes we’re headfirst down the shitter.
THE TENNIS MENACE
Here at the old folks’ doubles game
Are shrivelled limbs,
The almost-halt, the nearly lame –
And Sam whose spine and strokeplay curve
For cross-court spinners,
Corkscrew aces every serve.
So when like Sam I’m done with running
Let sly untruth
Stand in for youth,
For speeding feet,
For cloudless eyes,
And let me thrash your ass with cunning.
(Who can saddle a stallion,
Joke in Italian,
Choose the right boots
For papa’s Highland shoots,
Display a deft twist
In your fly-fishing wrist,
Exhibit a butlery
Knowledge of cutlery,
Ride over jumps,
See when to call trumps,
At oboe and croquet
Play better than okay,
Open the batting,
Set crosswords in Latin,
Talk tactics at Twickers
And vice at the vicar’s,
Then descant upon its
Seductions in sonnets,
Oh, endlessly learning
Unburdened by earning)
Don’t have a clue.
FIVE BAD ANALOGIES
As Wallace always sticks to Gromit
Adhesive as projectile vomit;
Or Tom forever follows Jerry
Clinging like a dingleberry;
Or Ahab chases Moby-Dick
Fixed as a famished pubic tick;
Or Robin Hood must marry Marian
As flies abide on road-kill carrion –
So darling, as a dog adores
The flavours of its favourite sores,
I hereby bind my life to yours.
Stale and grey
Ageing flesh rehearses clay.
Tamed thereby I make my way
Uncomplainingly towards decay.
I’ll not wage
A fool’s war against old age,
Since less and less
Appeals in this wrecked
The grave’s the place to dump this mess.
My yellow-toothed chortle.
If I can laugh,
What is your youth and beauty worth?
No one knows happiness
Like a happy old man,
Who has weathered life’s crappiness
Just as you can.
An aged face
Blights the skull’s ascetic grace.
Age rots upon
The svelte unblemished skeleton.
And mottled skin
That mars the lustre trapped within
Demands of me –
‘Let those shining bones dance free.’
I wrestled death
Bare teeth to his teeth
Until his white knee
Whipped up and winded me.
Feeling me weaken
Now his jaws
Close on my throat.
Friend, in this extremity
Speak up for me,
Who did not predict
Death, that son of a bitch.
We who were never
Handsome or clever
Lie here together.
Here in a field full
Of many an empty skull,
We who were dull.
Oh life, life should be wonderful.
On the rim of the grave come walk a while,
You on the outer, I on this inward side –
Not long, not far, but I will be
Glad in your kind company.
And be my love, my all in all,
And when I falter let me fall.
Night day day night
Are vicious slaps to left and right.
Snow sun sun snow
Slap our faces to and fro
Till the knockout blow.
Whatever thrills your body brought you
In the end it turns to torture.
Joints dissolve and hearts attack,
Our bones our own relentless rack.
But no disease
Stings like these
In a corner of the bar,
At ease in my old man’s mask,
That briefly become us,
We their constraint.
An impediment of dust,
An hourglass neck,
Where it mutters and frets
Then disperses to silence.
My happiness and hurt
This impatience of dirt.
To flee my grave across the earth it
Seems to me’s no longer worth it.
An old man’s knees
Contain disintegrating galaxies.
His clouded eyes
Are where a nebula dies.
He takes a pee
And tastes the nature of Eternity.
Thus and thus
The universe demands its dust.
I feel the fate of things I hold,
This plate in bits, this table sold;
The falling curtains, broken chair;
These socks are lost, these trousers tear;
My rancid underpants a wreck;
This hat in rags around my neck.
And one fine day
A soiled mattress dragged away.
How I should adore
To leap from bed declaring ‘More,
And yet more life! Bring
The broad day on – whereof I’ll sing!’
And indeed, bright-eyed,
Day won’t be denied –
Sniffs in corners,
Looks me over,
Says ‘Let’s get out!’
But I, sour-faced,
Let it all waste.
Why don’t I shout?
I should shout.
I can’t remember the last time I shouted.
Is this thing in my chest a trapped shout?
And all the crowds that walk about
Why don’t they shout?
In the street in the house at work
Till the walls step back;
In the park
Not shouting is death.
Tomorrow. Definitely. As soon as I go out.
It leaves the bladder
Slides down a ladder
Stops for a smoke
Laughs at a joke
A donkey-back ride
The see-saw and slide
Swings on a tree
Never thinks about me
Oh hurry up pee.
If a man is snatched away,
Back into yesterday,
And yesterday flies back
Like a lit window by a railway track
With the small figure lost within,
How is it for him
And all the glad loud folk,
Gone like smoke?
Our poverty will not be picturesque,
But drunk thugs, stale potato flesh,
Puddles ruffled in cold winds.
Not warm dust on honey limbs.
Dead this table, dead this chair.
Dead is what I eat and wear.
Keeps death out and me (for the moment) in.
Scar on my left thigh.
Hail and farewell,
And faithful legs and pigeon toes
Feeble eyes and pointy nose –
Goodbye all those.
And bye-bye likewise gob and knob
And every hidden inner blob
That mostly (thank you) did its job.
Farewell flesh that did okay
At giving me a place to stay
But starts to whisper, ‘On your way,
I’m tired of hauling you around all day,
Let me be clay.’
Dead, that bastard master who
Suspended me from grammar school.
Dead the railway gaffer pea-brain
Who nearly crushed us with the steam crane.
Dead or daft the magistrate
Who fined my ass for ABH.
And all those girls who turned me down –
Grey and fat and dowdy now.
I grow old, grow old.
Wrinkles fell on me like a net last night,
And I woke in a mist of whiskers
Like my breath frozen.
Over the stone floor I inch to the window
And scrape away the ice.
Where am I?
On the slope outside
An old dog sneezes at the cold
And then stares back.
The hillside falls
Somewhere I can’t see.
I’ll go out soon.
There’s a map of this place
In the stains on the back of my hand.
This is home now.
Sad old geezer,
Past lust or praise –
Yet how chatter fills his days!
How he chatters, clatters,
Flesh in tatters
Just a yellow old jaw bone
Dropped by his headstone,
But clackety-clack without pause
On the pit’s rim his nasty jaws
And yellow teeth and pointy chin.
Let’s kick the thing in!
THE WOVEN SPELL
This is what started it:
An old crone watching me
As she stitched and stitched
Her wicked embroidery,
Come from nowhere
To sneer at my wheelchair.
“What’s going on?”
I said, in my rage and shock.
“Who are you? Where from?
And my damned door was locked.”
“Indeed,” said she
“But you gave my daughter a key.”
Shock again, and I thought
“What good is a cripple!
I’d throw the hag out
Sooner than sit here and listen.”
Then, all unknowing,
I said “What’s the sewing?”
She showed me at once.
To the life, on her lifeless toes,
The dead girl danced –
Again, again she posed
Her empty head,
Caught in the coloured thread,
Alive on the stitched canvas.
Alive again, all fire and air,
Showing the raw contrast
Of my dead feet and her –
That wavering flame.
So that again the anger came.
Because how am I guilty?
The girl believed her mirror,
That all will bow to beauty –
And gladly I corrected her error.
Therefore she died
Of a sulking, childish pride.
But now I’d pains of my own
With a cramp, an incapacity
Pinning my feet down.
Baffled, jabbing the tapestry,
I said “And whose
Are the damn familiar shoes?”
She laughed, the mad bitch,
Her thin fingers racing.
Faster she stitched and stitched,
Stabbing her needle, saying
“Shoes you wore,
Friend, and will need no more.”
Faster, stitch on stitch
That held my knees, my hips,
My wrists. And my back gripped,
Lips pinned, gaze fixed
On the girl in air,
As when I found her hanging there.
Since then – an endless afternoon
And I, helpless here,
Woven in a woven room,
Stitched in a stitched chair,
By a stitched clock
Hoping for its tick or tock,
And my heart’s next beat.
O wind waiting in the yard,
O sun yawning in the street,
God damn the cruel hard
Witches who sent
This endless spellbound punishment.
How this confident fool would annoy and amuse her,
this silly mystery man, with his cloak and dagger
air, incompetent conman, faker, smoker, boozer,
everything she hates, a tireless liar and bragger
about stuff that didn’t matter, loud small-town loser
with a cheap suit, cheap car, a cut-price salesman’s swagger
as he aired his assumed right to choose or refuse her,
to take her, reject her, and (as he put it) “shag” her.
Which somehow he did. And what a change! His gross speech
silenced – by clammy-handed doubt, a disbelief
at having what had once seemed safely out of reach,
what, clearly, he could never keep. Hence the relief
when she left him to that sour counsel of despair
that says, Only the brave deserve the fair.
To the heron on its hair-trigger,
Past an armed guard of nettles
And trees washing their hair,
Fish drift on the tide.
Press on, press on where nobody comes
And barbed wires rust in the undergrowth –
Through an elm’s great shadow like a circus tent,
Up the steep lawns, ragged with weeds,
Weeds in the gravel,
Weeds mobbing the roses,
Till the trees step back like courtiers to show
The dirty windows of this house.
She creeps between chairs,
Open-mouthed, where age waylays her.
Shoulder to shoulder, photographs
Muster the lost in distant rooms,
Where Bibles and a shelf of pills,
A dried-out shaving brush,
Dolls for the child now twice divorced,
Are tide-wrack as her life withdraws
And its last drainings rattle in her throat.