Shadorma: Blue Fire

Look back on
That first rehearsal:
Slow, halting,
Bows like boats’ masts in a storm,
Brows and lips drawn tight.

A long term’s
Project, building up
Note by note
Bar by bar,
Finding their way in, feeling it
In fingers, feet, heart.

One week left
And decision time:
Fast or slow?
Yes or no?
Play the notes, or the music?
Be safe or sorry?

Concert night.
Packed to the rafters.
They walk in,
Take their seats.
Silence. Bows rise as one. Hold.
One two three breathe in

A shiver
Down my back. Throat tight.
Fiddles soar
Cellos growl
Breathless semiquaver runs.
A blue fire blazes.

Three and off.
Stand, bows held aloft.
The room roars
And my heart
Sings like Appalachia
On a bright spring day.


On Saturday evening, my daughter played violin in a concert with the String Orchestra run by our magnificent County Music Service. The highlight was the Appalachian-style Blue Fire Fiddler by the American composer and conductor Soon Hee Newbold. They’ve been working on it since Christmas, but even just a week ago, the teachers weren’t sure it would be ready. It was. Two days later, it still makes me hot and cold all over just thinking about it. Magical, glorious, wonderful stuff. N.


Droighneach II: Harvest

High summer heat. Out here, the pressure’s palpable.
Sun-shimmer on the wheat, and yet we’re worrying
About the weather, praying it’s possible,
To keep running hell-for-leather with harvesting.

The tractors creep beside combines crawling ceaselessly.
Night brings no sleep for now; we’re hauling heavyweight
Trailers gorged with golden grain, and checking constantly
For news of rain; the threat we don’t care to contemplate.

Days drag, dredged in dust and diesel fumes. We’re wondering
If we’ve edged ahead. The work consumes us utterly.
From dawn to dew the big rigs roll through, thundering
Scorn at forecasts and fatigue. The heat builds brutally.

One last load. Black battlements brood high overhead.
On the road, racing back beneath a sky suspended
Like an executioner’s axe; throbbing thunderheads
Prepare to strike. The first cracks come. Dark, distended

Clouds tear open; an electric ecstasy
Ignites the bristling air too late: the storm’s defeated –
The fields stand silent; tyre-tracks the only legacy
We’ve left. The land exhales. Another crop completed.


I’m not going to let the droighneach beat me. Still tricky as all hell, but at least I managed five stanzas this time! My admiration for Tom and Ina, who’ve got this thing well and truly nailed, knows no bounds. Wishing you all a splendid weekend. N.

Droighneach: Out for the count

No man should shrink from artistic adventure;
He must drink deep, live large, assert his mastery.
I signed this binding intellectual indenture.
And took the winding road to a cross-rhymed Calvary.

So it seemed through dark days of restless rewriting.
I had not dreamed, in all my vaunting vanity
Of such prosodic pain: words were devils, delighting
In strife, and the levels of strain on my sanity.

I’ve tried. Truly. But now I’m done, defeated,
My poet’s pride all run down in its designing.
A fiendish form: often essayed, rarely repeated.
And having played my part, I’m ruefully resigning!


It’s taken me days to work up the courage to attempt the droighneach; a prosodic challenge thrown down by Cynthia Jobin, which my dear friends Ina and Tom Davis have so brilliantly taken up and vanquished. I managed three stanzas before my brain melted. I may have another crack at it sometime – I confess there’s something strangely compelling about its diabolical complexity – but don’t hold your breath. N.

Shadorma: Small world

Twelve acres reduced
To just six square feet.
Pines, thick underbrush,
Sheer rock faces,
Windmill rusting in a wide yellow meadow,
Lonely grade crossing, wire fences.

The railroad runs
Right through it, winding up
From Fiddle Creek
To Ridgewood Junction.
Locomotives labour, hauling coal, boxcars, Canadian wheat
Bound for who knows where.

It’s all mine –
Made in my own image –
And it’s good.
From glue-and-paper hilltop
Down to dusty riverbed; created, ordered, set
In motion by my hand.

Some men forge
Empires, fortunes, palaces. Not me.
I have built
My own country:
A land I’ve long seen in dreams
That will never come true.

A small world –
Scaled to my own ambition –
I may command,
Shape, or destroy.
A tiny refuge, where I can be
A child – and a king.


Confession: since Christmas, I’ve been building a model railway in the shed at the end of the garden. Apart from reconnecting with a hobby I loved as a child, I suspect it’s a massive displacement activity: creating a miniature world rather than engaging with and shaping the real one, as I probably should be doing! It’s a distraction I definitely don’t need and probably can’t afford, but I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Petrarchan sonnet: Giant of Provence

From fragrant fields of lavender, a vast
Forbidding blade of blasted, sun-bleached stone
Rears like a thunderhead. It stands alone,
Inviting bold adventurers to cast
Their caution to its endless winds. Its past
Is littered with their shattered hopes; it’s shown
No mercy, done no favours, idly blown
Careers, looked on as legends breathed their last.
And come July, when hard-limbed men again
Face agonies of hunger, heat and thirst
Upon its slopes in search of victory,
How many will remember through the pain:
For all their training and technology,
It was a poet reached the summit first.


I consider myself still in training with the Petrarchan sonnet. For this workout, I picked the formidable climb of Mont Ventoux, the 6,000-foot mountain in southern France made famous by the Tour, and notorious by the amphetamine-stoked demise of British favourite Tom Simpson in 1967. But the ‘Giant of Provence’ seemed a doubly appropriate subject for this form: the first recorded ascent was made in 1336 by none other than Petrarch himself. He, of course, did it on foot: I’ve never attempted the climb, but I suspect I’d end up walking, too. N.

Comfort zone

Wish I could have one of those ‘comfort zones’
They talk so much about. A place of ease,
Calm and contentment, where my faithless bones
Would never ache, my mind would never freeze
In terror of the blank page; where I’d walk
The woods, play my guitar, watch freight trains roll,
Ride bikes and horses, drink cold beer and talk
About the deep things stirring in my soul.
In all my years and miles, I’ve never found
That sacred state where I’m in full command
Of how and when, and feel there’s solid ground
Beneath my feet, and everything’s in hand.
Can’t understand why they’d have me believe
Once found, this is a place I’m meant to leave.


The irony being, of course, that this is yet another Shakespearean sonnet 🙂 Have a fine weekend, everyone. N.

Shakespearean sonnet: Love and marriage

There’s not much left now. All that stuff, brand-new,
We unwrapped, gasping, twenty years ago
Has faded, been passed on, expired, worn through
Or simply vanished. Little did we know
That toaster would explode, those shining pans
Burn black, the glasses chip, the gleaming knives
Turn dull, plates end up mismatched. Some grand plans
Got mislaid, too, somehow. But what survives
We had no need to list; came with no box
Or owner’s manual, spares or guarantee.
It’s just kept right on working, stood life’s shocks
And daily labours; quietly, constantly.
A gift we gave each other with no strings.
Still ours when we have lost all other things.


This isn’t my usual line of country, but we’ve been invited to a wedding in May, which got me thinking about wedding gifts, and then our own forthcoming 21st anniversary this summer. Love changes with life and time, but for us, at least, it keeps soldiering on somehow. I guess we’re the lucky ones. N.

Petrarchan sonnet:

How clear-cut and straightforward life would be
If all I wanted was to be a star
Or two-bit billionaire: jet, chauffeured car,
Yacht, fifty-bedroomed palace by the sea
In Monaco or Malibu; mind free
Of any thought beyond the next cigar;
Luxuriate in knowing just how far
I’d come – and that they all wish they were me.
Such little goals: all that a man requires
Is money, and they’re his. But should he yearn
To live with heart untroubled, soul unbound
And as his conscience leads him – then he’ll find
His road is hard and lonely; he must learn
To look within, find his own worth, as round
About, the world just shrugs, leaves him behind.


It’s Budget Day here in Britain today, so all the talk is of tax, spending, cuts, borrowing, debt, investment – the grey, deathly liturgy of money. This is my second go-round at the Italian/Petrarchan sonnet. It put up a good fight. N.

Two-way jorio: Freight train

Diesel hauling heavy freight,
Fighting hard. Cars rumbling
Over grade crossing, moving
Mountains, biting through America.


Ina, bless her, has upped the ante once again, by writing a jorio that reads vertically, as well as horizontally. Mind-bogglingly brilliant. Never one to shrink from a challenge, I’ve had a go, too: vertically, it reads

Diesel fighting over mountains,
Hauling hard, grade biting.
Heavy cars crossing through;
Freight rumbling, moving America.

Hurts the brain, but this could become dangerously addictive. N.

Shadorma: DIY store

We stride in
With firm, manly steps,
But our weekend jeans, plaid shirts
Betray us at once.

Chippies, sparks,
Plumbers – men with vans –
Go elsewhere:
We’re trade, mate.
Their hard-won, high-priced mystique
Has to be maintained.

The old guys,
Life’s fixer-uppers,
Aren’t here now.
Their day is Thursday:
Pensioners’ discount. Plus, they
Know what they’re doing

And we don’t.
We may kid others;
Not ourselves.
Yet we strive
To look cool, impassive, as
With our mouse-soft hands

We caress
(Gingerly) nail-guns
Power drills
Planed timber
Chisels, hammers, screws – pilgrims
Touching the saint’s bones

While we pray
Fervently: Dear God
Let it work,
Just this once:
Neat, straight, solid, first time. Please.
For her sake, not mine.

At the till
Stare ahead, daring
That pale youth
To ask us
What we hope to do with stuff
We struggle to hold.

Back at home
Look at it, wonder
Where the hell
To begin.
Recall our calm, strong fathers
And wish they were here.


I have a lifelong loathing of DIY, and I suspect many of my generation secretly feel the same. We grew up in the 1970s, when the craze for home improvements really kicked off, and houses became assault courses, crammed with ever-shifting but seemingly permanent stepladders, dust-sheets, sharp objects and wet paint. Our fathers, as the pioneers, took the idea of doing-it-yourself literally, and kept all the difficult, dangerous (and therefore most interesting) jobs for themselves. The result is a cohort of 40-somethings who know how to do things in theory, but come to grief when confronted with the reality of drilling holes, sawing wood or, God forbid, putting up wallpaper.
I had the idea for this piece after a rare visit to my local DIY store last Saturday morning, which left me clutching a two-metre length of 12mm softwood, a soldering iron, a tube of solder and two new drill-bits – and hoping I looked more confident than I felt. (It all worked out OK in the end, but some of the language was, to put it delicately, robustly uninhibited.) And to those who can not merely do, but actually enjoy these things, I can say only that I stand in awe. N.