Ten Years Later

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On the step of a fucked up van,

we sit and think,

sip coffee from tin cans

and call to Kadare,

(writing something, somewhere,

beneath a walnut tree.)

His left hand idly strokes a lynx,

his right loops letters across

a sun-bleached page.

 

You ask in English (You want coffee?)

He answers in French (Mai, oui.)

I whisper the words hesitantly,

(Do të donit një kafe?)

 

He is writing a new book

about you and me

in which we start a revolution,

dig up the severed head of Ali Pasha

and hide inside a tower of refuge

until time (with its ravaging unkindness)

finds us and drives us into Tirana

– a central square, a coffee (Turkish black)

served with a wink and a nod by playwrights

(eternally young) – eyes gory wide and fixed upon

their distant Traitor’s Niche.

 

Later, somewhere in Chapter 10,

he writes a mighty galloping through the night

a horse (sent by Doruntine)

with rough whispers of a brother’s glee:

 

‘They have no power to hold the dead,

Come ride with me,’ is all he said.

 

We try to close our minds

but up they open anyway,

dangerous, exposed and free –

a plundered tomb,

a pasha’s skull,

an ancient cursed disease.

 

‘Come ride with me!’

 

In the cold arms of Konstandin,

we flee:

hurtling past the Palace of Dreams,

tearing at borders,

criss-crossing Kosovo,

Macedonia, Serbia –

to dismount (dead-dazed) into the drizzly dull

of a morning in Belgrade.

 

Perhaps an accident. Or an exile.

 

Kadare puts down his pen and takes a break.

He stands, stretches, looks up towards The Stone City –

a walk,

some raki,

some bread, some cheese, some grapes.

 

Later, at Nënë Tereza airport,

we, with open eager arms, will greet our girls.

Later, Kadare will make copies of his Nobel Prize,

stick on stamps

and post them to his family.

 

But now, in this moment,

we tramp across his land

where armies of lost bones

fret at the fraying nerves

of some dead general’s dreams.

 

Kadare – old, old but bony strong,

is far ahead and muttering

the last laments of epic verse:

an ancient mountain song.

 

A bear watches from the shadow of the trees.

And a wolf.

Beside our rusty van, beside a stone where serpents sleep,

Kadare’s lynx still lies –

soaking up the dying light –

tracing, with half-opened eyes,

an eagle’s arc,

stretch-winged and free in flight.

 

 

 

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Defence

Standard

It’s raining.

It seems mud and rain is de rigeur in this world.

She keeps this phrase to herself.

Underdressed, she shifts, stamps feet,

pulls colourful summer scarves around her arms.

Not far from here, the Shannon cough

rolls in from the river.

 

There is raucous cheering

and words fall through the air

like touch and try and scrum.

She thinks she can pick out her son

amongst the throng of nearly men

but loses him as they fall,

then rise and fall again.

 

She’s drifting off, floating through other worlds –

Midas’s wife, Heaney, honeyed tongues.

Cleopatra stands on the horizon.

An asp, at her ear, whispers false words of love.

 

And then, from the far side of the chalky lines,

she hears his voice –

plaintive, deep –

shouting out across flat fields

towards the hills of  Clare and Tipperary,

 

Everybody has someone.

 

and echoing down the lanes of Limerick,

 

Everybody has someone.

Everybody has someone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Muffins and Pickling Pears

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I’m hiding in the looped double eff of the title, sniggering,

wondering whether it alludes to something

(obviously nothing lofty like allegory

but it certainly looks lewd)

 

And yet, something’s not quite right –

it doesn’t work.

Pickling brings to mind vinegar at best,

at worst, sad jars of penises preserved for years

on sagging shelves.

 

And yet…

 

Muffins, muffin, muff.

 

I work on that image –

making muff –

but soon concede that

even a longed for afternoon upstairs

with rain drumming the pavements

and the curtains drawn,

can’t actually make muff.

 

And so, I’m forced to leave the

smutty shadows of the effs,

and stick to this:

 

I wake up early to write a second draft.

You, jetlagged, (it doesn’t exist, you insist)

wake too

and creep downstairs to make muffins

which we eat for breakfast with the girls.

 

Later, while I struggle to make speech sound real,

you get out the stepladder and pick pears,

then drive to Tesco for juniper berries

and flood the air with vinegar

that catches in my nose and throat

before becoming something

as rare and amorous as love.

 

Pickled pears with true love and  blue cheese.

 

Outside, the rain starts to pound  the pavements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naked

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A rented room:

dark enough for shadows to stand against

the warmth of orange light.

Us two:

up so early that night is like a hot breath

on broken sleep.

 

Dogs bark. (Were there crickets too?)

 

I move:

take soft steps across our soon-to-be-left room.

And that’s when I see you:

naked in this half light.

 

On autopilot,

you bend to dress,

careless of the effect.

But I, your wife,

(who, happily, messily, in real time,

have made a hundred wrestled, restless shapes

to taste your sweat and wear your face)

I stand now, startled –

moved like a new voyeur to beauty.

 

But this breath, this beat –

this shift to timeless in the Balkan heat-

is not cast in alabaster.

You stand straight, pull on your jeans,

move a step closer to our flight.

 

We kiss then, quickly, quietly.

Then soothe awake sleep-muffled girls.

And leave.

For Zelda

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Esmé comes down the stairs

with angry tears streaking

unwanted understanding down her Year 5 face.

This is death like she’s never known

till now:

Zelda’s death.

It opens a window, far too soon,

into a world where girls are killed

by human hands –

even small, smart six year olds

who fought against the odds

and should have won.

 

I take the book and read the page.

Her solemn face looks on.

 

Oh no! My heart breaks.

 

This grief is fierce and harsh –

the cruel kind that cuts through childhood,

leaving careless, jagged scars.

 

I hold her tight and let her cry-

for Zelda, whose story ends right here.

And for all those shadows she now sees

that stalk the night and darken days –

shadows so real that wardrobe beasts

and sharp-toothed wolves of fantasy

seem, side-by-side, like easy dreams.

 

Be brave Esmé!

For if there’s other girls like you

who feel injustice deep inside,

have fire blazing in their eyes

and use their hearts and souls to fight,

then maybe there is half a chance

we might just be alright.

The U-boat and the Whale

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u-boat

Undercurrent echoes of living flesh

sing through half-sunken subs:

sounds that, leaving Lincolnshire

and heading South, bounce around

The Wash, the Yarmouth Coast,

towards Sheerness.

 

In search of – what?

A rusty skeleton?

 

She hears his hunger songs and sings to him

with metal tongue, her own

‘Ich weiß es nicht.’

 

Her iron coffin voice –

depth charged, displaced –

rides North on winter waves.

 

She waits.

Then tries again.

 

Wo sind Sie jetzt?

 

Mud banks and hostile sands.

 

With ferrous blood in ferrous veins

and heavy heart,

she waits.

 

Artwork by Wendy Daws. Both the poem and the art were commissioned as part of the 23 Submarines Project with Icon Theatre supported by Arts Council England

The Weight of Antony

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Stands he or sits he?

She wonders which

as she lies naked, asp-gasping,

beneath Egyptian sheets:

the king of cottons,

fit for a queen.

 

Or is he on his horse?

A skin memory

of soldier’s thighs,

muscle-bound, rippling in khaki combats,

commanding his steed

with deep battle cries.

 

Oh happy horse

Her own hands slip over breast and belly,

skin burnished gold and bathed in honey.

She longs for him with stallion envy,

fills the love-sick wind with cherries.

Calls for cyanide and venom.

People who expect. Nothing.

Standard

‘You’ve got your tit out a bit,’

a Margate youth points politely,

speaks quietly.

I say, ‘What?’

and then look down.

Oh fuck.

I tug at my elastic stretch, halter neck,

tankini top

and nod,

‘Cheers for that,’

then dive, without dignity, into the sea.

‘S’alright,’ he says

and sits a while

under stretched-out skies

to smoke a fag.

And sigh.

 

 

Arsenic Laced Lunch

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When you point your finger at The Rabbit

with his finger on the trigger,

(metaphorically speaking)

(though is that any better?)

watch out for the decoy:

the bottle of Shiraz,

leaking out like plasma –

soaking Balkan grass.

 

Poor Dock. Poor old fella

with burning rosé cheeks

against a creased linen collar:

struggling with corn bread,

mustard, cheese and peaches.

 

Help him! Help him clean it up.

 

Dock and The Rabbit: old and laconic.

Sitting back and basking.

Cheerful reminiscing.

Playing chess and laughing.

 

But your voice cuts through the shit.

This is what you did, guys. This is what you did.

 

And suddenly I’m listening:

ears pricking up,

picking up what they did and definitely did not.

 

Hang on. You did what Dock?

 

The Rabbit, soft and by his side,

snuffles in his furry skin:

imprinted  on The Rabbit’s eyes

– the disconnect of sin.

 

Hey Hehir,

go for the jugular,

eviscerate their lies

but watch out for the hemlock and the aconite,

watch for the almond: the scented cyanide

and when you  go to sleep tonight,

don’t turn out the light.

Sailing Season

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Don’t keep your curtains closed

against the day

or leave your glasses waiting,

arms open,

ready to frame your face.

Don’t leave your phone uncharged,

unanswered

or fail to change your status.

Come on!

Wash up! Pick up the post

and feed the cats.

And when the policeman

calls your name,

Come on! Call back.

Always Loved, Desperately Missed

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Do bones feel a tickle
as a finger traces letters –
nestled, mossy letters –
neatly indented
in the cold grave stone?

Is there a shiver of the living
as a finger traces Father,
in the dark December graveyard,
in the cold, carved stone?

mightier than

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Things to be kept:
My head
My hands
My books
My pens
My own bed

Things to be whole:
Hearts

This to be sliced:
Bread

These to be held:
A hand
A trial
A child
Beliefs

These to be free:
Words

This to be sliced:
Cheese

This to be free:
Verse

These to be shared:
Feasts.

Chemin des Dunes

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I park the car off Route de Gravelines –
six minutes on Sat Nav from the Port –
and head, on foot, along Chemin des Dunes:
half road, half track.
On the right, the last houses of Calais
look out now on portaloos and rubbish skips.
And behind the muddy banks are tents,
like those left behind at festivals –
pop-up domes, not made for hard November nights –
they look today like lands destroyed and left.

Two weeks before, I’d been here and
walked these paths and seen these lives,
lived between the rubble and the rubbish
and the burnt plastic.
But last time, the tents were open to let in light
and air and clothes were hung out to dry.
Beneath the ‘Welcome to Darfur’ sign,
a group of men played cards
and mums trudged with toddlers to standpipes.

This time, it rains.
And the wind pushes the rain into
my face and the faces of the passing men.
Good Morning. A nod. A grin.
Shit Morning is what we mean.
This time, the mud and puddles
threaten to fill up shoes and soak socks
that will not dry.
These pop-up tents are storm-sodden
from top down,
stuck, like popped bubble-gum to the ground.

It’s shit.

Ahmad pulls me into the shelter
of a small café and buys me tea.
No. I’ll get it, I say.
He insists and thrusts one of his few
damp cigarettes into my closed fist.
Thanks, but no. I don’t smoke.
But he lights it anyway and so I do, today.

I should go. I’m lost somewhere
between the Eritrean church,
Darfur and Afghanistan.
I think of Good Chance
and its space-age dome.
I listen to Ahmad talk about Kuwait,
take a call from his mum,
watch him stamp out the butt of his cigarette
between flapping soul of useless shoe and mud.
It rains. Lashing down and blowing pissed-off gales
across broken, hopeless homes and sodden sand.

I go. I shake his hand and hope,
with all my heart, that he gets to London
because we need more Ahmads
in our green and pleasant land.

At Theatre Good Chance,
there is still a calm that comes partly from art
and partly from their fuck off dome,
built by refugees and volunteers
to stay the course and be the theatre,
the meeting place, the village hall,
the shelter from the storm and fire and fear,
the place to be to show solidarity and share grief
when refugees are blamed for terrorist deaths
on dark Parisian streets.

Four Iranian men and a boy of eleven
are eager to learn English.
We start this way –
first words, then up on our feet,
pretending to be in a café,
then to buy a ticket for the London Eye.
Mohser wants to meet the Queen.
Why? I say.
He looks at me with nearly teenage scorn then smiles.
She’s in England isn’t she?
We write a poem and count the beats
in English and then Persian, then Armenian.
I try to say, I have three daughters.
They laugh. I try again. They laugh
some more at me.
So. I say. Come on. Let’s write a play.
and soon we have the shape
of a great morality tale!

THE HERO AND THE THIEF:
complete with goalkeepers,
the mafia, love, money, jealousy,
prison and university.
A hero and a ne’er do well –
first the egg and then the camel.

My troupe go to queue for food
and I turn and see Rosie,
my friend from university,
and Mohammed Omer A.K.A The Dream.
I introduce them
and Mohammed feels unexpectedly
like an old friend too.
Friendships are cemented quickly here
with shared cigarettes or poetry.

Back in Café Afghan,
I ask for chicken and rice
and stand awkwardly for
only a beat before there is
a shuffling and a space is made for me.
More tea. More hands to shake.
All muddy boots and charging mobile phones.
Happy to be inside, even when the frame
is less than greenhouse strong
and wind lifts the plastic edges
and heaven would be a handful of nails.

I should have brought nails.
Today, the jungle needs tarpaulin
and blankets and tents and nails.

Abdul writes a play
about leaving his love
in Afghanistan and the promises he made.
We act it out for a small crowd.

And then my raucous band of actors
are back, fed and up for it again!
Rehearsals, makeshift props are made
and a football found for our hero.

We play a game together,
a kick about, in a circle
in the outer dome,
waiting for an audience to gather.
And then the show –
a mismatched and muddled
version of rehearsals
with applause on every line
and pauses to translate.

They bow and Mohser grins.

And when it’s time to leave,
Mohammed Omer walks with me
through the dark,
back to Chemin des Dunes.
There’s garlic and the scent of spice.
Small ramshackle shops
sell Coca-Cola, Sprite and chai.
Dotted about are flowers and
white fairy lights.
Dotted about are the odd
tents still standing.
Through the dim, moonless night,
Mohammed leads a path between
the flooded tracks and
mudded slopes and I follow him.

He takes me to my car.
I have a boot.
He doesn’t ask to get in.
He hugs me. Says thank you.
I say I hope you make it
and he shrugs – almost
resigned to this life.
Then he smiles:
I’ll be alright.

But it’s not alright.

In the last week, a fire raged,
a storm destroyed,
the police arrested,
the fingers pointed.

Hands are lacerated. Men electrocuted.
Mohser’s mother died before they fled.
Murdered.
The twin girls, who pinch my cheeks
and paint their nails and laugh
are cold and wet.
Mohammed’s hands too cold to write.
Amhad’s feet are wet.

Cove Point

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cove point
The black feathers
scribble invisible ink letters
to long lost lovers
across the furthest arcing reaches
of the textured off-white sky.

Onyx From Peja

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Peć to rhyme with
deck of cards,
stacked against
a hand shaking,
stacked against a
trembling,
laid beside the
mountain stone:
ruled like
lines crossing lines
crossing new
borders, crossing
divides.

Outside The Box

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“Here’s our forest and our reading chair.”
(I see you stretching up under
the autumn morning light
to shout out the leaf words
we’ve weaved together.)

“And this is our wooden puppet theatre.”
(And there you are,
the play complete with crazy characters
living in glove puppets on dancing hands.)

“And we’re lucky –
our field has lovely trees.”
(This time you have your heads down,
muddy fingers scribbling furiously:
words flowing so fast
you hardly have the time
to breathe.)

“And this. This space could be anything.”
A crowded store cupboard,
(A studio lit in coloured lights.)
piled high with half-forgotten things
(You’re all curled up with eyes closed tight.)
is changed like a pumpkin
(Inside your minds you are thinking,)
or a scampering mouse
(dreaming, wishing, turning)
caught by the wave of a wand,
transformed
(into startling thoughts
waiting to be born.)

Wheat Beer and Burnt Barley

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Through the fog, she reached forward,
unembroidered his brocade-
gold against black-
and picked him apart.

With fingers deft, she drew
dark charms through black ash
to cover her tracks.

Then doubled back.
And took a different path.

Girl

Standard

I’m waking up early
but want to keep sleeping,
to stop the sun rising,
to wave away leaving:
to not say goodbye
and feel my heart breaking.

I don’t want to go.
I want to keep thinking
and dreaming of him:
of his ripped denim jeans
and his soft Spanish skin.

I want to hold on to
that feeling of changing,
of flying, of floating,
of soaring and diving.

But I’m not in control
of my life or decisions
so I’m writing this poem
where the start is the ending,
that ends long before
I reach the beginning.

If I’d had more time,
more than less than a minute,
I wonder which moments

I’d choose to remember;
whose arms would I wish
could have held me
when facing a death
that was pointless and graceless?

This mountainous land
is vast and imposing
but there’s nothing poetic,
there’s no special meaning
in taking a breath
that won’t keep me breathing.

My bedroom is just how I left it
except the covers are smooth
and the curtains are open
and there, on the chair,
is a neat pile of washing:
my uniform laid out for school in the morning.

Circle of Pens

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Suddenly, seemingly wide awake,
he shot upright,
indignant and
demanding to know
where I had hidden them.
“I know you know where they are,”
he said.

And I did.
I could see them instantly:
these pilots with
smooth, round heads
like sleek bullets
in black and aircraft grey-
standing straight
and head to head,
making a cool cartridge belt
of possibilities.

I shrugged him off.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know,” I said
and slid from the covers,
left the bed:
still see-through and half sleep-dead.

The Agile bender: a poem by NJW (poet, scientist, dad)

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The Agile Bender came at sunset,
No one saw.
Round the walls, he at the onset,
Prowled for hours to gain an access
At our door.
The Manager collects our taxes,
Keeps us safe from night time prowlers,
Bright toothed Beelers, Benders, Howlers.

Our town is cramped and black with dirt.
We don’t care.
The Manager keeps us safe from hurt,
From Benders (though no one has found them)
He says they’re there.
He watches for a chance to hound them,
From pointed spires, towers and gables,
Alleys, yards and smelly stables.

My sister lives in Burnham Beeches,
I’d like to go.
She says she’s never seen these creatures.
But with no boss to organise her,
I’d like to know,
What could be done if one surprised her?
All alone, who would defend her,
If ever came an Agile Bender?

Still, I would like to travel yonder,
But I dare not.
It is foolish far to wander.
The manager says the woods are crawling,
And I care not
To meet wild Benders out a brawling.
So here I stay mid factory fumes,
To work his shuttles, wheels and looms.

And Still It Rains

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Three hundred children,
brim full of poetry’
are shuffled from the library:
a whispered threat
to their security
(just enough to suggest
that nothing that has been
and is and always was,
will ever be the same again.)

The river is too high
and still it rains.

Three hundred children,
eyes opened up recklessly,
watch consonance leap
apocalyptically,
chanting cataclysmically,
shouting out, ‘the end is nigh’
and fiercely, metaphorically,
dragging fine diagonal lines
across the day dark sky.

In less than two hours time,
the water will be child high.

Three hundred children turn
from the frantic shouting,
the river rising,
the teachers’ rhythmic counting.
They strain their necks to see,
as out of the worried crowd,
a poet pirouettes.
Lost in a world, within a world,
they watch the old man dance,
each catching gratefully
his elegant insanity.

Forget the storm.
This is the stuff of memories.

First

Standard

There is carbon and protein

and the harsh taste of iron,

the push and the pull

of the spinning electrons

to get to the core

with the protons and neutrons.

There is your face

and my face and

fierce desperation

that looks like destruction

but feels like elation.

And then there’s exhaustion;

a slow re-emerging

into a morning

where washing needs doing

and cereal clearing.

Only Forty Minutes From London

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We’re not panicking, she whispers,
though a sheen of sweat
passes cold across her high forehead.

Under the non-London streets,
her feet feel the threatening thrum –
a dirty noise, driven on by
pissed off passion-
loose fit and left out.

In the corner lurks a clown
whose hand scribbled signs
remind her of how low she’d go,
how far she’s come.

As his painted features fade
to the panic made of pit deep fear,
she wakes, eyes wide,
heart bruising the brushed
cotton sheets.

Fuck, she breathes, easing
herself out of the dark night,
into the bright Chelsea streets.

The Classic Nude and Noir

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She sits and stares and I do too.

Outside, the billowed silk is cold:

the cubic art with Scottish lines, drawn hard.

But these – the light, the sound, the uncertain story –

seem so wrong. They wake up longing;

they brush a broken wing against loneliness.

And desire.

Let me in, they whisper to us. Let me through.

There is no need to stare at her.

She hears it too.

Angels of the North

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Take a slice of cereal box
and rust brown paint,
sloshed on ridged white.

Take clay and slip and
a sharpish knife.

Blend the Medway sound
with the soft, flat song
of a Northern child.

See the shape of angels rise.

Departure Lounge

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You suck in smoke

like something

beautiful is trapped

and then released.

 

I want that part of you.

I want the tobacco kiss

that stirs yellow roses

and hot stones.

 

You take my face

and from your lips.

I take the taste

and love you for it.

 

So this is why I feel sick,

seeing you disappear

into a clinical box,

made only for the

purpose of placing

nicotine in your veins.

 

Stark and white:

it is the sterile

waiting room

where frightened

lovers sit.

 

 

Two Nights In Slovenia

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Do you have to go? Elsie asks.

Iris is sat, not nibbling on marmite toast.

 

It’s good for us. It’s good

for you that we’re in love.

 

No, she says, frustrated by

my lack of knowledge.

It’s a line from Frozen.

‘Do you have to go?’

 

Iris bites her lip, bravely.

 

It’s what Elsa says just

before her parents die.

 

Enough! I say

and Iris starts to cry.

Hastings: Rock-A-Nore

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The grass up here is short and spring green,

soft rabbit nibbled and sheep shorn

and all around, stretched beneath,

the blue-grey sea is pricked

a hundred million times

with restless scattered lights

like sun specks pissing silver to the breeze.

 

Bare Feet

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It’s Sunday.

Your voice lifts and falls

with the lyrics of no sleep

and big decisions to make.

I try to concentrate

but filthy thoughts

dance like dust motes

through the lazy heat:

a tangle of arms and legs and jeans.

I touch my toes to your bare feet.

Old Speckled Hen

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To sip is to hold back;

drink deep.

Take the flat and ferrous

and savour it.

Take the red skies

of Scunthorpe’s steel

and the flat river fields.

Drink it all in.

 

 

Soft Ash

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This is how he knelt,

beside soft ash and firelight,

hidden in time until…

 

until I shook up

my rough chestnut roaster,

a makeshift shape,

a twisted foil platter,

hot and blackened:

far from memories

of polished copper,

burning green

in orange embers

and yet…

 

and yet this sound

travelled down

through thirty years:

an unchanged murmur

of sweetly charred flavour,

of charcoal shells

scattered.

And so tonight…

 

Tonight, I kneel beside

soft ash and firelight,

lost in time.

Wherever she walked

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She picked the northern sun

with nut brown hands

and brought it down to earth for us

 

and through cold furrows fed

corn yellow thread

that grew up strong and tall for us

 

then conjured fires to fight

with sleet and ice

to make the world feel warm for us.

 

If frost forever froze

the river fields,

what, then, would become of us?

Podling Party

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Punched out pulp paper hearts

flash fiction to the sea dark sky,

she hitches up her wedding dress

and he flings back his wedding tie,

in frozen frames of love’s first dance:

flash photos of post punk romance.

The Fault Line

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‘It’s alright,’ she said.

‘I know I’ll be lonely

later on in life.’

 

‘Just lonely?’ he said.

 

And he rolled his

cigarette slowly.

 

‘And desperate probably,’

she said. ‘Destroyed.’

 

His roll up pushed

soft against his

lovely, lovely lips.

 

‘It’s sad,’ she said.

‘But it’s ok.’

 

He smiled then

and even his smoke

smelt of sex.

Ruined

Standard

 

Down Limekiln Lane,

past cold caravans,

the squally summer wind

drives sea fret

in wild frenzy

towards new shoes:

wild too.

Bad Mouth

Standard

Aidan watched as

I poked a knife into

the rice-grain sized

gaps in the dishwasher

spinner. He said,

“Should you do it like that?

Don’t they need to

be pulled out, not pushed in?”

I kept on poking.

“The only way to pull

them out is by sucking,”

I said with authority.

“How would you do that?”

“With your mouth,” I said.

“How would you know that?”

“I’ve done it,” I said.

Had I? It seemed like

an unsavoury act.

I began to have my doubts.

“That’s gross. Really foul.”

And his nose crumpled

in distaste.

“I bet you wish you hadn’t

married me now.”

“Almost,” he said and turned

away.