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My life came up to me and said


‘I want to ask you about courage.’


It wasn’t a good time.

I was kneeling at the iris bed.

I’d been waiting weeks to do this –


to not think about anything 

but the irises and my need 

to free them of all

the nettles and wild grasses,

my need to cut a border,


look out the window

and feel a deep satisfaction

at the sight of the dark dug-over soil,

broken now and open, 

ready for the rain to enter,


for the green sheaths to push up,

unfurl their purple flags to the air.


‘Do you think you have more

because of the years or less?’


And I looked at my life as I’ve always done 

– askance, sceptical – and said:


'I’m not sure I ever had it.

I’m not sure you asked for it.

Things happened that made me

sad as the next person

but my choices were clear to me

and I was always able to make them.’


‘Do you know how lucky you are?’ my life said,

placing a hand on my shoulder

as I looked down and scraped my trowel with a stick.


I have no idea why the tears came.

I didn’t know who to thank

or if even thanks were due –

surely not to my life who, 

I could see now, was simply passing by.

(Fool - Bloodaxe 2022)

Adult Education 


She is old enough to be my mother.

I’m afraid of what she’ll say next.

She has what she herself would never say

(because it is a cliché) –

a ‘formidable intellect’.

There are things in her life

that have made her sad and formless.

Everything falls.

I find myself clucking and cooing over her.

Once I touched her arm. 

I am a fool.

I’m afraid of her saying to me

“That is simply not true”

and me knowing it.

My mind jumps up and down in its bag

and wants to get out

when she walks in the room.

When she says my name

(which is not at all often)

I feel – briefly – of some worth.

She once said to me

“I should like to hear you on Auden”

and I lay awake composing

a cold and brilliant talk 

called About Suffering

which I had myself telling her

over tea in the canteen.

There are things in her life – 

but there’s never time.

I watch her shuffle out 

with her plastic bags full

of fourteenth-century Italian poetry

which is the class she goes to after mine.

(Fool - Bloodaxe 2022)

The Curtain



Perhaps you know that story where people step 

out of this world and into another 

through a split in the air – they feel for it 


as you would your way across a stage curtain 

   after your one act, plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening through which 


you shiver and shoulder yourself 

without so much as a glance up

to the gods, so keen are you to get back


to where you were before your entrance:

those dim familiar wings, you invisible,

bumping into things you half-remember


blinded as you’d been out there

in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded

but wholly attended to in your blindness.


Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.


No tears then. Just one of us to hold 

aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –

before letting it slump majestically back 


to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards

in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.

And when the lights come on and we turn to each other


who’s to say they won’t already be

in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,

wiping away that face we have loved,


unbecoming themselves to step out 

into the pull and stream of the night crowds.

Turning Earth


We know how hard a year is

                                                                    we who grieve


how much the turning earth hurts

                                                                    how absence 


likes to present itself in the light

                                                                    of each new season


you dead in spring is not the same

                                                                   as you dead in winter


but you alive was you alive

                                                                   all the year round


And then there is the night 

                                                                   which is its own season


the slow dark that comes always

                                                                   suddenly upon us


a black room in which we wake

                                                                   and feel the fact that you


who were so complicatedly here

                                                                   are now so simply gone

Deep Sea Diver

There’s a field inside my head


It’s dark and flat and a moon hangs 

above it in whose silvery light 

nothing appears to live


It’s very mysterious and simple,

on a different planet    


to this one here      

that moves and is manifold:


each one of the tens of millions of blades of grass

shivers in its singularity;


one sheep’s crusty underwool is home

to a greenbottle settling down to lay

her two hundred and fifty possibilities


while another stares out 

of the glazed globe of an eye


not unlike a man who’s lost his mind

but found there cause instead

to be vaguely, dully, afraid of everything


And beneath the sheep

and field and flattened buttercups,

miles and miles beneath


all is shift and shale,

burn and boil


Old underearth,

unseeable, unexplorable;


who scrambles through your soft weak rock,

who swims through your molten ocean,

what holds court at the centre

of your solid iron ball the size of the moon?

Once I plumbed down 

level by level 


into the sea,

into the realm 


of the falling debris,

dead and dying-fish-eating creatures


into the freezing black waters 

of blind long-tentacled things;


down among the deepwater canyons I went

and still nowhere near was I


to the outer core

of the earth’s interior,

its massive indoors


when I saw hanging there

a sole, or flounder


a self never before seen 


but one who remained unchanged 

in the bright beam of my look


And I rose to the surface

like one who had only that to do


where slowly over the years

all that I held dear came loose


and I took to the fields

that covered the earth

like so many soft dressings


and I lay down and looked up at the sky


where I saw a fish hanging 

in the black, where I saw a moon


(Alive Alive O - Bloodaxe 2015)

Deep Sea Diver
00:00 / 03:28

You drew breath


as a boy draws something silver from a river,

an angler from the sea a bale of weed;

as a woman draws herself from a bath,

as blood is drawn from a vein.

You drew breath as thread is drawn through

the eye of a needle, wet sheets through a mangle,

as steel is drawn through a die to make wire

and oil draws up through wick its flag of fire.

You drew breath as a reservoir draws from a well

of ink and a mouth and a nose and eyes are drawn,

as a sheet is drawn from under the dying

and over the heads of the dead.

You drew breath as the last wheezing pint is drawn,

as money and a bow and the tide are drawn;

as up over her head a woman draws

a dress and down onto her a man.

You drew breath as a cloud draws its pall

across the moon, across the car park

where a sky-blue line draws the way

all the way to Maternity; as all in blue

they drew a semi-circle round the bed,

a line and then a knife across the skin;

as in another room someone drew

a curtain round its runner, a hand across

a pair of finished eyes. You drew breath

as they drew you – besmeared and blue – out

and sublime was your fury at being drawn

into this air, this theatre; you drew breath

for the first time – for a second I held mine.

You Drew Breath
00:00 / 01:51




I could no more know

myself than this flame

seated in the air

one quarter of an inch

above its burnt root

– so self-contained a form

you’d think it held in ice –


no more know that flame

than one drop of rain

or a single leaf

let alone this draught

slicing in across the sill

nudging the little

corpse-boat of a fly;


no more know you, fly,

than this cat – the cat

perhaps but what about

the way it holds us

in a gaze so void

of an idea of self

our own can only fail.


Were we to return

that look we might learn

to take something from

nothing, might begin

to steady and see,

figure who we are

in that slit black flame.

(Salvation Jane - Anvil 2008)

The Fitter


It can take days. The vision, you see, is vital,

without it, it's nothing - a soft toy. Pass me

my eyes, pointing to an old biscuit tin.


It's a kind of hunting all over again, with books

open, photos pinned, ready with needle

and glue. They caught the body years ago,

that was the easy part. But he speaks now


of a soul; what, for instance, did the creature see?

Moorland, scrub, veld, or sodden jungle,

desert, wood, the same indigo skies?

The man who fits the eyes has never left


his semi in Cardiff, but he's a master of precision,

nothing's too small, or extinct. Recently

though, a slip in concentration perhaps -

an upright grizzly in the Natural History


has the eyes of a man stranded in his front room,

the telly blizzarding, the fire gone dead;

a bison's head looms out of a wall, dazed,

like a woman just woken, sleep crusting her eyes;


and a pair of monkeys stare out from a London window,

like lovers come to the end, at a loss

in front of what has been, what is to come,

deaf to the whirr and gong of the clock on the hour.


His eyes brim at night from all the detail.

There's a tea-towel over the mirror and it takes him a while

to sleep. Everything's always awake, he says. 

The Fitter
00:00 / 02:12

The Night We Stole a Full-Length Mirror


I'd have walked straight past if you hadn't said

Look at the moon and held my head in your hands 

and turned it slowly round to face a skip,

its broken skyline of one-legged chair, 

ripped out floor, till I saw it moving

- so slow, so bright - across the silver glass.

We stood there for ages, a bit drunk

staring at the moon hanging there

as if it were for sale and we an old couple 

weighing it up but knowing in our hearts

it is beyond us - A cat jumps out 

and before we know it we're stealing back to my flat,

the great thing like a masterpiece in our hands, 

its surface anxious with knees and knuckles, 

the clenched line of your jaw and your lips 

kissing the glass over and over with curses.

You lean it so it catches the bed and me,

I nudge it with my toe so it won't hold my head.

Switching off the light my skin turns blue

and when you come in on the scene and we see

ourselves like this we start to move like real

professionals and my head, disowned and free, 

watches what our bodies are doing and somewhere 

the thought I can't believe we weren't made for this

and I can't stop looking even though the ache 

in my throat is growing and soon there will be tears

and I can hear you looking and I know what you're 

looking at and it doesn't matter but it isn't me.

You left me behind in a bar in Copenhagen St,

the one with the small red lamps and my face hung

a hundred identical times along the stained wall

invoking like some old speaking doll

the dissatisfaction I come back and back to

and there's this really pretty Chinese waitress

you're trying not to look at while I'm talking to you.

Then you get up and I'm left alone so I lift my head to look 

at the man who's been staring at me since I walked in. 

He's huge and lonely and lifts his glass and nods

and all the women along the wall break into smiles.

Then you're back and whispering your breasts your breasts 

and your hands are scrambling up the wet stone

of my back and I imagine the lonely man is there

behind the silver screen sipping his drink,

his eyes thick and moist behind the glass;

I know he's waiting to catch my eye but I won't

be seen to know I'm being watched. Not

till it's over and we collapse, all of a sudden

and awkward, and the room becomes itself again, 

filling the mirror with its things and our two faces

staring in, calm and dull and self-absorbed.

Then we look at each other and are surprised

as if we weren't expecting to find the other

here and the smile is quick, like a nod slipped in 

between two conspirators returned to the world

of daylight, birdsong, the good tug of guilt

before we tilt the mirror up-, sky-, heaven-ward.

(At Home in the Dark - Anvil 2001)

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