Everyday alchemy

As my wife will cheerfully attest, cooking does not rank high on my (very short) list of accomplishments. I am fascinated by bread-making, though: I know it’s all down to chemistry, really, but there’s something miraculous about the transformation these simple, natural ingredients undergo. Making a batch of rolls today got me thinking about this everyday alchemy, and a sonnet inevitably followed.

THE ALCHEMIST

The quest to turn base metals into gold
Consumed men’s minds. Mad, poisoned, they pursued
The secret: now their crucibles are cold
And all the hellish potions that they brewed
Are lost, as was their cause. They did not see
The mythic formula had long been found.
A genius unnamed by history
Had gathered grains, thought long and deep, then ground
Them fine between two stones. Now I take flour
And, adding water, yeast and salt, perform
A homely miracle: inside an hour
These simple things are magically transformed.
The man who bakes his own bread understands
The power they sought was always in our hands.

Signs of spring

A real sign of spring this afternoon: out on the Madone, I passed the first field I’ve seen cut for silage this season. Making silage (cutting grass while it’s still green, then sealing up to pickle in its own juices) is a far more reliable way to provide winter feed for cattle than haymaking in a changeable climate like Britain’s, and is now all-but universal practice. To us, silage looks revolting and smells worse, but to cows, it’s ambrosia. Which is just as well, because they’ll eat virtually nothing else all winter long.
Before it’s mown and the grass is carted away, a silage field is lush and iridescent: afterwards, it’s an anaemic stubble, pale and incongruous amid the rampant greenness all around. That convict-crop look stuck in my mind, and by the time I got home, a poem was well on its way. It being Sunday, I gave myself a day of rest from strict rhyme and metre, and indulged in a little free verse. And why not.

FIRST CUT

They came for it early
And fully armed.

The swollen stems never stood
A chance. They were cut down
In a blur of blades,
Crushed till their juices ran like blood,
Laid out in windrows
And left for dead.

But there was more:
There’s no escape
Once you’re in the machinery.

The men returned next day
With a new terror
That picked up the weary, wilted grass
Chopped it savagely into one-inch lengths
Then whirled it in a hurricane blast
And hurled it up the chute.
A brief arc through space
Then plunging in an emerald cataract
Into the trailer’s echoing dark.

They left the field shorn, stark
And pale with shock, a convict’s scalp
That made the land around recoil
In fear and shame.

The grass they carted off
And imprisoned
Inside strong walls
To serve a summer’s sentence
Denied light
food
water
air.

But when Winter shackled the land
They let it out
And after its long months
In solitary
Its character was reformed.

And for the rest of its days
It did nothing
But good.

Flight of fancy

Sussex in May is about as green and pleasant a land as you could hope to find. I love it with a passion, but even I’m forced to concede it’s a bit lacking in drama. It’s hedgy, rather than edgy. So I’m always delighted to see buzzards, the largest birds of prey hereabouts, which have recently returned from the edge of extinction to haunt our skies once again. They’re little splinters of the long-lost Wildwood; a reminder that even in our tame countryside, there are still the hunters and the hunted. This little ottava rima goes out to them all.

BLUE SKY THINKING

Time was you’d never see them here. Today

I watched a pair dispute a square of sky

Like fighter aces: circling wide, at bay

Then closing, locking talons, spinning high

Like lost umbrellas, neither giving way

Till one broke with a lonely, keening cry.

An echo of the wild that made me yearn

For more than just the buzzards to return.

Fighting talk

I went to see the new Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie Robin Hood last night. Not exactly high culture, I know, but the blood-and-thunder battle scenes, sumptuous costumes and sheer scale of the thing were oddly therapeutic. I won’t comment on the accents, though.
This latest retelling of the Robin Hood legend is a long way from the classic Errol Flynn version, and even further from the definitive book by Roger Lancelyn Green that I read as a lad. But the idea of a man (literally) fighting for justice still came through – and strongly enough to set me scribbling this morning. Unlike the film, though, this poem isn’t supposed to be taken seriously.

FIGHTING TALK

Watching my hunting-dog running
Gunning down rabbits on open ground
Why do I find myself willing
A killing?

Is it simply an instinct
Linked to a hard, precarious past
When the everyday price of food
Was blood?

Or do I, perhaps (digging deeper)
Keep a tight rein in this sanitised world
On a side of myself I can’t trust:
A lust

For the old ways of settling scores:
Wars fought on paper or over the phone
Aren’t enough: there are times when I yearn
To burn

My enemy’s keep to the ground
Sound trumpets, raise banners, summon my troops
And ride out in battle array –
To pay

Back the drunks and the teenagers shouting
Out in my street on a Saturday night
By clearing them out of the joint
At sword-point.

Lay aside the solicitor’s letter:
Better to harry late-payers with soldiery
And take what they owe me by force.
Of course

These are not the Dark Ages:
Rages are dealt with in civilised ways;
So I’ll keep on damping down mine
With wine.

Anglo-Saxon attitude

As a poet born, brought up and now living in Sussex – ‘land of the south Saxons’ – I’ve long felt compelled to write something in the Anglo-Saxon style: four beats per line, the first three alliterative; no rhyme; and no counting of syllables. It’s has been neatly described as ‘bang-bang-bang-CRASH’ and I quickly found it wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Iambic pentameter is a hard habit to break.
I’d also had an idea for a poem about my first day’s ploughing (now more than 20 years ago) bouncing around in my mind for a while. The strong, earthy feel of this form, which has been with us for 1,000 years thanks to the anonymous genius behind Beowulf, suddenly seemed exactly right. So, herewith my first attempt. Something tells me it won’t be my last.

FOLLOWED BY GULLS

And so the seasons slipped. Too late,
Too wet, to work for winter crops.
In the barn, the bags of barley seed
Stood in a stack, till Spring brought in
The sun to suck the soil dry.
We advanced one April afternoon. In haste
We teamed the tractor to the plough
And laid out lands. Our lines were drawn.
As the engine juddered, I joined the ranks
Of workers who’d waged a war with the earth
Since Bronze Age bullocks broke new ground
Won from the wildwood and awakened the land;
The centuries’ struggle to subjugate Nature
Continued by Townsend and Tull, then Ransome
Whose plough I put my apprentice’s hand to
In the hope of holding hard to their tradition.
At first, my furrows fumbled and scrabbled
Like frozen fingers till, finding my rhythm,
The green began to give way to brown
Steadily, but still one stubborn thought
Kept beating about my brain. The rooks
And their cousins, the crows, crowded in rowdily
To rob the rich, ripped-open ground;
Portly pigeons pecked and plundered –
But where were the witnesses I wanted most,
The arbiters of arable, whose approval I craved?

Then they came:
A few, then a flock of followers blew in
Like summer snowflakes, sudden, from nowhere.
Transformed, I was a fisherman, the field an ocean
The tractor a trawler. I trailed them behind me –
A wake of wheeling white, their raucous
Shouts like shipmates on shore-leave completing
My picture-perfect ploughing scene.
I’d gathered the gulls. I got my dream.

Life before the mast

For centuries, our local woods were managed on the ‘coppice-and-standard’ system. The ‘coppice’ trees are fast-growing species like beech and hornbeam, which were harvested every 10-20 years to provide wood for fencing, hurdles, tool-handles, roof shingles and the like. The ‘standard’ trees are oaks, well-spaced, which were left to reach maturity, then used in house- and shipbuilding. It’s often struck me that many of these oaks would end up far from the Wealden clay where they’d grown peacefully for a hundred years and more. Only now have I got round to writing about one of them.

Sonnet: THE SUSSEX OAK

Among the coppiced hornbeam, chestnut, beech
And other, lesser trees, this one alone
Was left untouched to swell its girth and reach
To heaven. While its underlings were thrown
And carted off for palings, it lived through
Their several lifetimes; promised, separate
A woodland Nazarite: when storm winds blew
It nodded as they thrashed, intemperate.
Till, stripped of bark and bough, the Sussex oak
– now rooted deep within a man-o’-war –
Shot-splintered, splashed with blood and wreathed in smoke
Fell in a wreck of canvas, rope and spar.
Its vow fulfilled, far from its native land
It went to rot, lost in the unseen sand.

Rural drama

For some reason, this morning found me flicking through a little Red’n’Black notebook I’d taken on holiday last summer. Among the endless rambling prose, I came across this little poem, which I’d completely forgotten about. I’d spotted these two lads while I was trundling along a quiet road in Brittany on my beloved Pashley Paramount; a little poetic licence did the rest. I’m taking this as an excellent lesson in the value of a) always having a notebook with me, and b) never throwing anything away.

DOWN ON THE FARM

One boy stands
On the bank
Staring, his hands
Thrust deep in his pockets;

The other –
Best friend or
elder brother –
Kneels by the heifer lying

On her side.
He looks up
Hands spread, eyes wide
Fumbles for his mobile.