Whatever Green

We’re painting her bedroom. The little-girl pink
That she’s had on her walls ever since she was six
Has to go, we’ve been told. But it seems they don’t mix
Shades that truly reflect how fourteen-year-olds think.

There’s an ocean of blues and a wide yawn of beige:
Peach, magnolia, lavender, calicos, creams.
Way too placid and pale for her dramas and dreams;
Far too subtle and soft for this high-contrast age.

We need tones more in tune with our turbulent teen:
Let’s have Coffee Stain skirtings, the door Dark Despair;
An Apple White ceiling, one wall Gothic Nightmare,
All the others a deep shade of Whatever Green.

Slap on Intense Emotions with Angst as a base:
A tin of Wild Hormones stirred up with a stick;
Then a bucket of Drama Queen – lay it on thick –
And to finish, a top coat of Personal Space.

But she blazes with colours that they’ll never sell:
The glow of her temper, the gleam in her eye.
She’s our gold, our red sunset, the blue in our sky.
In her rainbow’s a covenant. And all will be well.

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Rhymes and reasons

Take paper, pen, and wait for words to flow.
Breathing suspended. All is possible.
The blank page stretches out; last night’s new snow
Untrodden, where we may plant footprints; show
The path we took, and others where to go.

Each poem is a map; a traveller’s guide
To strange lands we have passed through, wandering
Wide-eyed, alert and innocent inside
Our own heads; to the many roads we’ve tried,
The loves we’ve lost, the dreams we’ve been denied.

Like postcards from the places we have been
(Or wished we had); our reminiscences
Of roaring cities, cobbled streets, quiet green
Woods; eye-witness dispatches from a scene
Familiar, dreamt, and all points in between.

Like letters to an old friend – or maybe
We’re writing to ourselves in years to come:
To get ‘er down before she goes; so we
Need not depend on fickle memory
To tell us what we knew, and used to be.

 
 

One man’s take on this crazy art of ours – and a riposte to my inner critic, following our imagined conversation in the pub earlier this week! N.

Green shoots?

A run of bladed, jetstream-jagged days
Ends in a windless dusk. Bold blackbirds sing
Down in the wood; a pale rosewater haze
Makes paper cut-outs of the hills. Now spring
Has shown herself; a hope so long suppressed
By bitter blows and wicked weathers’ sting
Glows like the trembling sun that fires the west.
But do we dare set blossom, bud or flower
When still, at any time, the wind may turn
And rake us with its icy claws; an hour
Condemn a season’s patient growth to burn?
I’ll see the greenwood burst in leaf and then
Believe that winter will not bite again.

Good for nothing

I met him in the pub. He asked: “So, what is it you do?”
“I’m a poet,” I replied. “What, really? Get away.” “It’s true.”
“Well I’ll be damned. Excuse my asking: what d’you make a year?”
“It’s more of a vocation than an actual career,”
I said. “One never does it for the money.” “So you mean
It doesn’t pay that much?” “Well, if I’m honest; not a bean.”
He stared at me. “You don’t get paid at all? You must be mad:
Why don’t you get a proper job?” “You sound just like my dad.”
He shook his head. “What happens to the stuff you write each day?
You read it? File it? Rip it up?” “I give it all away.”
“What – all of it?” “Yep, every word.” “For nothing – gratis – free?”
“‘fraid so; just stick it on the web.” “Man, stop; you’re killing me.”
He swigged his pint. “And you’ve done this for how long?” “Ever since
I was a lad, so call it forty years.” I saw him wince.
I went on: “Come to think of it, I can’t recall a time
I didn’t frame my world in stanzas, syllables and rhyme.”
“How many poems have you written?” “Hell, I’ve no idea:
It must be several thousand, though.” He almost dropped his beer.
“So let me get this straight: you’ve done a lifetime’s work unpaid.”
“Guess that’s about the size of it.” “You need a different trade
And fast, my friend – or some way to get cash for what you do.
Someone must pay for poetry.” I smiled. “All right. Would you?”

Tree of life

-I-

No-one in town forgot that summer night.
A sultry, restless afternoon gave way
To dusk descending in ramparts of bruised
And brooding clouds. The sun was shuttered out,
The mountains melted. Nature drew a breath
And held it.
                          People scanned the sky. They sniffed
Rain on the air, brushed clinging tentacles
Of hair from sweat-dewed foreheads, hurried round
To check on horses, shut car windows, send
Their pets and children under cover, then
Stood on verandas, watched from kitchens. Now
The weight of air killed every sound, and talk
Dried like cut grass. The storm hung like a great
Black hammer, raised and ready to be swung.
The townsfolk drifted limply off to bed,
Oppressed by heat and silence. Wringing sheets
Were thrown aside with weary sighs and groans.
And then it came: a stranger’s hesitant
Knock at the door. The lucky few who slept
Murmured and shifted. Now the first shy drops
Of rain tapped on hot roofs. The clouds conferred.
Then, reaching an accord, the sky gave way
And fell. Like echoes from some monstrous cave
A thousand miles beneath the earth, a deep
Flat detonation boomed. Hands flew to ears,
Small dogs dived under couches, houses rocked.
The aftershocks rolled round the cowering hills
Like boulders in a snowmelt spate. Again
The clouds collided, heralding the rain
That hurled itself upon the helpless earth
With savage force. Roads ran like creeks, bare ground
Seethed like a boiling pot, and tender plants
First bent, then broke, beneath the water’s weight.
A silver blade sliced through the dark. It seared
The retinas of watchers. For what seemed
An endless age the landscape lay exposed,
Stark, petrified in aching brilliance,
Then vanished. Those who saw the strike would swear
They heard a manic laugh, or shriek of pain.

-II-

Far from the town. A lonely, trackless tract
Of forest on the steep and dusty rim
Of some lost canyon on the mountain’s flank.

The bolt that lit up half the world had struck
A mighty pine tree.
                          Thirty thousand amps
Coursed through its ancient trunk. Yet in that one
Ecstatic microsecond, no harm came.
The tree did not catch fire. It did not split.
The energy blazed through it like the surge
The soldier feels the moment he’s aware
He’s in the sniper’s sights.
                          And suddenly
It was transformed.
                          From all its millions
Of stomata, the tree began to breathe
Out poetry. Experience trapped in
Its wordless wood for three long centuries
Rose from it in a vast exultant cloud.
The tree had found its voice. It spoke with joy
Of water entering its roots. It groaned
As it recalled the agonies of sap
Returning in the spring. It took the songs
Of birds that nested in its branches, wove
Them with the rustle of the breezes through
Its needles in a silent symphony.

The tree told of all science had observed
But never felt, and could not understand:
Of water pumping through its phloem; how
Its cells swelled and contracted; of its deep
Slow drawing in of CO2, and clean
Life-giving exhalations; how it caught
The sunlight in its leaves, and fed on stars.

Its voice filled all the forest, mingling with
Steam rising from the sun-warmed undergrowth
And searching out each hollow of the hills.
And as the sun rose higher, so the song
Grew louder – a gigantic chorus missed
By elk and eagle, bear and butterfly.

The tree spoke on. Its understanding grew.
Reflex responses turned to acts of will.
It realised it was no longer bound
By those laws that had governed it, and all
Its countless brethren, since the first seed stirred.

All summer, then, the tree declaimed and learned
Until its consciousness awoke. In shock
It realised the other trees had heard
No word, no single syllable – and if
They had, they’d not replied, or understood

The tree now knew its voice would not be heard
Among the grey-green ranks of its own kind.
To stay was to remain a lump of wood,
Unheeded and unseen. It had to reach
That other world it sensed must lie beyond
This lonely place. It must escape – or die.

Slow. Slow. Deliberate as a man
Who peels a Band Aid from his hairy leg
The tree began to rip itself away
From stony soil baked brick-hard by the sun.
The dry ground pulsed, heaved, cracked as knotted roots
Convulsed and flexed like hatching snakes. And though
Each torn stump flamed, the tree would not desist.
It laboured on: its trunk twisted and writhed
Though no wind blew; from fissures in its bark
Came moans of pain, while resin seeped like blood.

The beauty of its poetry gave way
To ugliness and violence; its sweet
And lyrical refrains were now replaced
With savage imprecations poisoning
The air; its clear songs lost in howls of rage.

But it was done. One last, titanic thrust
And from the place where it stood undisturbed
For fifteen generations, it was free.
It stood some hours, recovering its strength.
The burning of its torn and broken roots
At last subsided.
                          Then, uncertainly,
It grasped the startled earth, and tried to move.

At first, its gains were too small to be seen.
Its roots were weak, and any sudden shift
Could topple it. The roots felt out the ground
As delicate as surgeon’s fingers, gripped
With power to shatter concrete. Driven on
By some deep impulse, it began to crawl.


-III-

The forest ranger spotted it. And screamed.
He hit the brakes. The truck fishtailed. Stones flew
And dust erupted. When it cleared, he threw
Himself out of the door, heart thudding, ran
Towards the apparition. Everything
He knew and understood tried to deny
What he was seeing. Yet there was no doubt:

Slow, steady, purposeful, the tree advanced
Along the logging road, bending this way
And that to keep its balance.
                          And the man
Stood stricken with confusion, dread and doubt.

He slipped and scrambled to the truck and called
The office. Though they laughed at first, the fear
And passion in his voice were all too real.
Was he a lunatic, or did he speak
Some dark, disturbing truth? The boss was firm:
Stay where you are. I’m coming. Do not move.

He found the ranger standing, stunned and mute,
Right where he said he’d be. The boss’s jaw
Fell slack. But not for long. The dollars flashed
Like fireworks in his mind. Man, this was it:
The winning ticket in life’s lottery –
A goddamned miracle! With hands that shook
And trembling voice, he called the newspaper.

-IV-

It did not take them long.
                          By noon next day
The town was overrun. Battalions
Of journalists moved in. The cameras rolled
And satellites bounced images into
A billion disbelieving eyes and brains.
Newspaper headlines blazed. Switchboards were jammed.
Hotels rooms, flights and rental cars sold out
In seconds as the story swept the world.

Behind the news teams came the scientists:
A task force of the brightest botanists
Geneticists and biochemists streamed
From universities around the globe.
They measured, probed, examined leaves and bark,
Took samples of the sap and roots. They swapped
Hypotheses and theories; plans for clones
And micro-propagation were proposed.

By now the true believers had converged.
Some claimed it a as god, while others saw
The devil’s hand at work.
                          All were agreed:
A strange and wondrous thing had happened that
No science or religion could explain.

The money men won out, of course.
                          They sent
A helicopter and a sling, and plucked
The tree out of the forest, set it down
Inside a giant city stadium
Where people paid their dollars just to sit
Entranced and watch, heads shaking, from the stands.

-V-

Slowly and aimlessly, the tree patrolled
The vast and empty space. A sombre cloud
Of poems rising imperceptibly
Above its tattered branches: a lament
From some forgotten world; the lonely cry
Of all the Wild imprisoned: far from home,
Bewildered, lost, abandoned, and afraid.

The tree sobbed out its heart. Its poems rose
Unheeded in the gritty, choking air.
The fumes and filth infected every line,
And tainted them with rage, spite and despair.
The concrete rubbed its roots raw; and the din
And clamour of the city drove like nails
Into its flaking bark. It knew no rest
And craved the silent precincts of the woods.

New revelations broke upon the tree:
Though millions watched and wondered, no one heard.
They cared not for its wisdom; all it might
Have told them of the world. Its quest had failed:
The separation ran too wide, too deep.
All it had suffered, striven for, was lost.

A shimmering of falling needles. Bark
Cracked like old parchment. Shrivelled roots. Bare limbs.
They fed and watered frantically. In vain.

With its last failing gasps, the tree now spoke
Of forests long forgotten, bright clear streams,
Of sharp, sweet air, and vast unfathomed nights:
A vanished world passed down through root and seed
It could have shared, had they had ears to hear.

The tree was still. Its songs and poems ceased.

And with it died a dream. Humanity
Forgot, disowned, denied all it had seen
As some collective madness, or a trick.
The scientists retreated to their labs,
And there resumed their work unravelling
The inner mysteries of plants. They wrote
Arcane and learned papers only they
Could understand, and flew to conferences around the world
To argue every detail.
                          And the one
That could have told them every secret stood
Encased in glass and silence for all time.

Work creation

Nobody’s closed a coal mine down
Or shut a shipyard in this town.
No locked gates at a lumber mill;
No steel plant dark and cold, but still
It’s ten a.m. and here I am:
Laid off, redundant. Not a damn
Thing I can do about it; they
Don’t seem to need this man today
Is all. Meanwhile, more bills arrive.
I know that, somehow, we’ll survive –
We always do – but life has left
Me on the sidelines. I’m bereft
Of solid skills. No place for me
In foundry, field, refinery,
Construction site or factory floor.
It’s hard to see what I’m good for.
You’ve got something to advertise?
Sure, I can help you: I’ll devise
Some clever lines to help it fly
Right off the shelves, make people buy
This thing they never even knew
They needed. This is what I do.
But not today. I’m not required.
Just sitting, waiting to be hired.
(So if you need some words that rhyme
Give me a call. I’ve got the time.)

 
 

Ah, the rollercoaster ride of being freelance. For five months, I’ve been working almost without a break: this week, things have dried up completely. After 15 years, I should be used to it, and I know the phone will start ringing again, but it doesn’t stop the silence being scary as all hell while it lasts. This is when I wish I had a proper craft or trade to fall back on! N.