She’s standing in the yard: a runabout
Hitched to a feeder wagon. Grubby, old –
She’s twenty-five if she’s a day – and with
A million hours on her.
She was mine
One sacred summer when we both were young:
Together we hauled ten-tonne loads of grain
And shifted straw-bales by the thousand, cars
Strung out behind us like a comet’s tail
Along the gasping lanes. Deep in the night,
We rolled beside the combine, halogen-
Lit like an offshore oil-rig, tawny ropes
Of wheat unwinding from the auger, down
Into the trailer’s famished metal mouth.
And I felt like a king, enthroned on that
Air-cushioned seat, my CB radio
A-crackle, Steve Earle in the tape machine,
Rear window open, orange warning light
Up on the roof: all any boy could want.
I took her home at lunchtime: parked her up
Outside my parents’ house, then swaggered in –
Her oil on my jeans, dust on my boots –
Ate fast and hurried out; just couldn’t wait
To fire up the diesel, go to work.
And after all these years, she is still here –
They couldn’t do without her now – while I
Roam, restless, heartsick, purpose still unclear
And dream of those lost days, that cloudless sky.
The country here is littered with their bones;
Half-hidden carcases lie everywhere –
In ditches, under hedges, in that shed
Collapsing on itself. They are the dead
Left by the weary, never-ending war
Between the land and those who work to claw
A living from thin soil shot through with stones.
A roller, bust in hopeless halves. A plough
With coulters, mouldboards, landsides, beam and share
That once gleamed brightly, pitted, dull with rust;
A baler thick with long-gone summers’ dust;
A set of heavy harrows, choked beneath
Tall nettles, broken tines like missing teeth.
Their fall from grace complete, abandoned now –
Redundant, superseded, or plain wrecked
And left to rot. No money to repair
Or reinstate them. Killed by this terrain –
Its cruel contours, rocks and endless rain –
They stand as red-stained steles to all the hopes
Of fast, efficient working on these slopes
Sharp salesmen led their buyers to expect.
But someone, somewhere, still recalls the day
That shiny new machine was standing there
In pride of place: the farm folk gathered round
To peer and prod; and him, aloof and crowned
With glory as the only one who knew
Exactly how it worked, what it could do –
Not dreaming things could ever end this way.
Another piece brought back from west Wales, where the steep, stony land and pitiless rain are hell on men and machines. This follows the same form as my earlier Insomnia – if only to prove to myself that my invented scheme (with the stanzas linked by the ‘B’ rhyme in the second line – what was I thinking?) would work a second time!
Call it a wood,
And nothing more, and you will not be wrong,
But telling only half the truth. This is
My own cathedral, with more glory caught
In every bluebell, tender hornbeam bud
And papery anemone than vast
Vaults of Caen stone and acres of stained glass.
And also it’s my study: living trees
Tell stories that the dead wood of my desk
Cannot recall. And it’s my schoolroom, too:
Repository of wisdom of the earth
And every lesson worth the learning. Here
Are life and death writ large, the wheel’s slow spin.
And this is my apothecary: I find
In its rich scents, soft light and shaded paths
The sovereign remedies for all my pains
In heart and mind. And it’s my sanctuary:
The fears that stalk my days and nights don’t dare
Pursue me when I claim protection here.
And this is my great stronghold: bastion
Against the madness, ugliness and noise
That lie beyond its green, enfolding walls –
Call that the world.
This is a blank-verse reworking of a piece I wrote a year or so ago. I’ve had a bit of a week of it work-wise, so writing some iambic pentameter between phonecalls this morning has been very soothing: form and subject matter coming together, I guess. I’m afraid I wasn’t up to rhyming it as well, though! N.
I ride along this lonely lane
With eager eyes and ears that strain
To hear those well-loved sounds again:
The diesel’s drone, the seagulls’ cry –
The noises-off that signify
Spring fieldwork’s under way close by.
The John Deere drives four furrows through
The stubborn clay. I wonder who
Would stop to watch the work I do?
This one came to me, more-or-less fully-formed, on Tuesday’s bike ride: three tercets of iambic tetrameter, for those of a prosodical turn of mind. If I might crave your indulgence, it works best read aloud.
The finest, and probably most famous, example of this form is The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson – a masterclass in conciseness (he needed only two tercets!) and deceptively simple language.
The image is an old one (so old I had to scan it from a print…) of my good friend Ebenezer driving a John Deere, with a four-furrow plough, near the village where I used to live. The tractor I actually heard on Tuesday was a Massey-Ferguson smashing up clods with a power-harrow. As well as being far less romantic, it neithers scans nor alliterates nearly so well – plus, it was too far from the road to photograph properly. This is why they invented poetic licence. N.
The clouds have rolled in. Warning drops in the air.
I’m miles from home, on a hilltop somewhere.
But I’m not heading in. No: it’s time to prepare
For a new task. I’ll go hunting rainbows.
Seems the weather divinities aren’t going to let
This chance to half-drown me escape them. They’ve set
Their rain-dog pack on me. Don’t mind getting wet:
It’s a small price to pay, hunting rainbows.
Though it may only last for a scant quarter-hour
There’s a magical side to this sharp April shower –
Over sunlight it has a miraculous power.
Now’s my moment to start hunting rainbows.
The clouds crack. The sun splits a curtain of rain.
I look to the eastern sky. There, once again,
Old Richard of York’s giving battle in vain:
But I’ve carried the day, hunting rainbows.
And forget the tall tales our grandmothers told
About finding the end and that big crock of gold:
There’s a treasure right here we can have and behold
Any time we go out hunting rainbows.
Got caught in the rain on the bike yesterday. This happens a lot, but under the right conditions it’s not without its upside. You just have to know where to look for it.
My phone camera wasn’t man enough to get a decent picture, so the image is an arc-en-ciel that appeared over the sea in Brittany a couple of summers back. N.
They’re lost. I know before they tell me. So
I offer help: consult their map and guide
And see at once which way they’re meant to go;
There are no secrets that this place can hide
From me. I could, if asked, say how this lane
Links up with every other; bend their ears
For hours with village gossip; and explain
Each field’s crop rotation down the years.
Yet though I speak with such authority
This local knowledge, intimate and broad,
Is not the resident’s, but memory:
I’m long gone – no house here I can afford.
Life’s handed me this pair of travelling boots,
But it will never rip me from my roots.
Rain’s coming. Soon the day will die:
Before the weather hits, we’re high
On this steep slope, to catch a sight
Of kites against the scowling sky.
One pink-and-purple-quartered, bright
And tugging playfully, held tight
By my small girl on wind-taut string.
The other at a watchful height –
A russet silhouette – the king
Of these green hills. With copper wing
And deep-notched tail he tames the breeze;
His hunter’s eye sees everything.
One kite knows only certainties
Control, restraint and boundaries:
One has the freedom of the air
And all its possibilities.
I watch my daughter standing there,
Her laughing face upturned, aware
The moment will soon come when she
Will wish to fly, and I must dare
To let the string run long. Now, we
Are here together – happy, free.
And that means most of all to me
For she means most of all to me.
It’s been too long. I must go wandering
Again, be free of this, live off the grid
A while, and work the way the old ones did:
Sans phone, sans internet, sans everything.
With dog at heel I’ll stalk the woods and hills
In solitary communion with the land
And put my words on paper, pen in hand –
Sans Microsoft, sans formatting, sans frills.
And so I disappear, but do not doubt
That I’ll return – this is my life, my trade
As I have said – and bring new poems made
By means to trust when all the lights go out.
No broadband reaches where I’m heading to
Which lets me reconnect with what is true.
Last post till the weekend, folks, as we’re making a dawn run to deepest (and, if things run true to form, dampest) west Wales tomorrow for a few days’ R&R chez mother-in-law. As always, my heartfelt thanks to my treasured band of fellow WordPress poets for your support and encouragement: look forward to catching up with you all very soon. N.
[The sharp-eyed among you will notice that, although this is (yet another) sonnet, I’ve finally departed from my favourite Shakespearean variant. I don’t know whether this one has an official name – as far as I knew I was making it up – but I enjoyed playing with a new rhyme scheme (ABBA CDDC EFFE GG instead of the usual ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). And of course, there’s more than a slight nod to Will in lines 4 and 8. Credit where it’s due, I always say. N.]
March morning. Walking in the woods I heard
A hollow knocking, like Fate at the door
Beethoven-style. Hard looking flushed a bird,
Slate-grey-and-clotted-cream, who crept with sure
And certain stealth along a rot-racked limb
And, with his testing tapping, set the tree
Reverberating. I could have held him
Between my thumb and finger easily
And yet, he made a towering oak resound
And showed me that, small as we may appear,
When time and place are right, we too can sound
Like giants, with a voice all men can hear.
I’ll hammer on the world’s dead wood and make
A noise no-one can silence or mistake.
The nuthatch is one of my favourite woodland birds: small, not showy and rather tricky to spot, but seemingly able to defy gravity, running head-first down treetrunks and along the undersides of branches with perfect aplomb. This one was looking for insects in a big oak tree in our local woods; I could hear him tapping the bark with his beak from a hundred yards away.