Martian poems

Martian poems

– 1 –

Silent lords

A noble race, these silent lords,
Who walk on four long legs
And speak with their ears.

Their plodding servants,
Two legs short,
Feed them, dress them,
Clean their houses, tend their gardens,
And receive no word of thanks.

And when these mighty princes travel,
They take their bondsmen with them,
Slung like packs
On their broad backs.


– 2 –

The Red God

His image hangs in every home,
His effigy in every window:
The Red God is coming.

Ahead of him, the people race
From place to place
Their cheeks and purses hollowed out
By this frenzy in the cold.

For he must be propitiated
With gifts and feasts and sacrifice:
Only those who stand unblemished
Will know his favour on that night.

And yet, among the true believers,
The infidels wait furtively –
Another’s name upon their lips,
An ancient heresy in their hearts –
All but lost in the noise and glare
Of the Red God’s triumph.


I first came across Martian poetry back in 2004, had a go at writing some and really enjoyed it. Only now have I got round to publishing it. This pleasingly whimsical form, which was briefly in vogue in the late 70s/early 80s, centres on describing familiar things in unfamiliar ways – as though you were a Martian seeing them for the very first time, with no prior understanding of what they are, how they work, what they’re for and so on. The images can be surreal, surprising, and sometimes rather charming in their deliberate naivety: there’s also a whiff of the delightful Anglo-Saxon riddle verses about them, too, which I really love. These two are about horses and Santa Claus, by the way.


Pantoum: Sighthound


No time to hide. Don’t try to run;
I’ve seen you, and my eye is death.
Say goodbye to earth and sun.
Draw your final, futile breath.

I’ve seen you, and my eye is death,
Seconds now remain to you.
Draw your final, futile breath
I’ll take you as I’m bred to do.

Seconds now remain to you;
I have all the time I need.
I’ll take you as I’m bred to do,
I hunt by sight, kill by speed.

I have all the time I need;
Say goodbye to earth and sun.
I hunt by sight, kill by speed.
No time to hide. Don’t try to run.





Just for once
I’d like to be the one
Who not only
Didn’t give a damn
But didn’t even feel
He had to:

Permitted to be adequate,
Content with average,
Playing for fun,
And strolling into every day
With the same, insouciant
Could-do attitude.

But it is not given
That we poor firstborns
Should whoop it up
Kick over traces
Tie one on or
Make a joyful noise:

No. Duty and correctness
Are our lot.
To follow precedents and not our hearts,
To do our best and not our will,
To set examples
And not the world on fire.

We sport the scars
Of tumbles from the bicycles
Our younger siblings just climbed on
And rode. Ours is the fear,
The sweat and endless trying:
Theirs the weightlessness, the speed and feel of flying.

And then, we leaders into life
Must head the dull procession
Out of it: be first to find
Our arms have got too short for reading,
And in the vanguard of the ones
The world leaves far behind.

If primogeniture made kings and queens
Of us, we’d wear your expectations
As diamonds in our crowns.
But the Esau that’s in all of us
Feels their weight, and quietly wonders
If we’ve already lost by coming first.

Last week I had a discussion with David about whether our innate competitiveness, sense of responsibility and compulsion to ‘do the right thing’ stems from our being eldest children. Having speculated there might be a poem in it somewhere, I then (naturally) felt duty-bound to write one: this is the rather tongue-in-cheek result.

Long gone

Long gone

What I tell myself was
The real me
Stood up once

And walked from the corral,
– boots dust-dulled, gloves stuffed
in his faded jeans’ back pocket –
Without a care in the world,

Touched his hat
To the old man on the porch,
Smiled at some secret
Held then and now forgotten
And was never seen again.


I wrote this poem back in 2008, in the midst of one of my regular identity crises. My last post, and the wonderful poem David shared with us today, prompted me to exhume it and publish it for the first time. I guess we’re all in search of the elusive ‘real me’ – after three more years’ writing, I feel I have a slightly clearer idea now. Can’t rule out the occasional wobble, though.

Shadow of my former self


Been a while
Since I last saw
That once-familiar silhouette
Racing, keeping pace with me
Along the sunlit road.

I was a different organism then,
Precision-milled and smoothly-oiled,
Each day’s worth, and mine,
Minutely measured in hours and miles.

Most days now I see a softer, slower,
Mellowed me, the fact of being out here
More important than statistics. And should I catch
A sidelong glance of what I was
I wonder if I miss me.


Went out on the road bike for the first time in ages on Sunday. It was very foggy when I set out at 0900, but by 1200 the sun was out and I raced my shadow the last few miles home. The title of this poem popped into my head at that moment and the rest has followed.

Mushroom magic


They stop us short
Like pennies on the pavement,
Unlooked-for, standing silent
Like the monstrous monuments
Of some strange, forgotten race.
Fleshy, flaking,
Still sparkling with this morning’s mist,
Big as plates
Balanced like circus tricks on slim stems
Each ringed with the ragged ruff
Of an Elizabethan rogue.
Fairy castles, flying saucers –
So alien, yet so at home
Here on Ashdown’s sheep-short turf.
More wait –
White, tight as golf-balls –
To swell and stretch in wild extravagance
While here and there
A tiny Ozymandias
Wind-tilted, toppled by a careless boot
(Or speeding whippet)
Crumples in its slow collapse
Into food for its own kind.


Give me five…

Give me five…

So often
I casually say
I just
Dashed it off
In five minutes.
It’s nothing.

And usually
It is.


If they told me
I had just four minutes
Not to write a poem
Boil an egg
Walk to the station
Drink a cup of tea
Make and eat a sandwich
Or listen to a single song
But to break
A record
Long held
To be

I’d run a mile.


We grew up thinking
One day,
They’ll say
This is it:
You’ve only got three minutes.

So that even now
To be given
So little time
Still has the power
To scare me.


A couple of minutes, no more –
Then I have to be out of the door
And when time is so tight
It’s quite tricky to write
Will I make it? I’m really not sure.


And now it’s just me
Against the clock.
Can my four fingers
Outrun its two hands
And get to the end
Or will I simply
Run out of


These poems are the result of a ridiculous challenge I set myself the other day. I had a quarter of an hour before I had to leave for a meeting, so I gave myself exactly five minutes to write a poem, then  four to do another one, then three, and so on. Lots of fun, but it made my brain hurt.

Sustainable transport


You talk about the old days;
You talk about the old ways:
My course has run unaltered
These five hundred years and more.
Great estates and families faltered:
I endured, enshrined in law.

Each generation knew me,
Their boots and habits drew me:
The traveller and teacher,
The journeyman for hire;
The ploughman and the preacher
The shepherd and the squire;

The heedless, hopeless lover,
The poacher back from covert,
All passed this way. I saw them
In all weathers, season-round
By bridge and stile I bore them
Safe wherever they were bound.

And when the oil stops flowing
And the world is clean at last,
I’ll still get you where you’re going
As I did in ages past.

If wishes were horses

The big horses

I rode them –
The big horses.

The racers and ‘chasers,
Old horses, bold horses,
With the fire of years in their blood.
Blacks and bays, chestnuts, greys,
Through fields, over fences,
Following hounds, devouring the ground.

Smart horses, carthorses,
Thrillers and killers –
Work-hardened and wild,
Iron mouths tearing the reins from my hands,
Stuck to the saddle
By will and the love of the war.

Green woods and show rings
Rang to the laugh in my heart,
And the hooves’ hollow knock
In a quiet country lane
Beat out steady
The time of my life.

Another relic from the archives today. A huge ‘thank you’ to Tikarma for her wonderful poem ‘Dreaming‘, which reminded me of this piece I wrote way back in December 2004 but have never previously published. Horses were the centre of my existence when I was in my teens and twenties: nowadays, I view them from afar, since it’s altogether too difficult, expensive and impractical to consider going back to them. I’ve been in denial about this part of my life, which is why Tikarma’s poem really shook me (in a good way). This poem is now almost seven years old, but the words, and sentiments, remain unchanged.

En attendant l’hiver

The hardest 100 days

A warmth, not unwelcome,
But strange, unsettling,
Lingers in the land
Like a swallow
Uncertain of the way to Africa.

It will be gone

I felt it on today’s descents,
The air pooling in the dips
With a graveyard-at-midnight chill.

Then the real cold will fall
Unwelcome as the big gas bill
That surely follows it
Distant but devoted
As a stray dog.

And with it will begin
The hardest hundred days:
Of thick clay dinner-plates
Stuck to boot-soles,
Wet waxed cotton and whippet-coats
Hanging in the hallway,
Bicycles brought home
Muddied like hunters,
Old cracks and wounds in finger-ends
Split open like beech-bark.

And for all its wet and weariness
There’ll never be a minute
I’d rather sit inside and watch
Than be out living in it.