Shepherd’s warning

Once, when young
I would have scanned this morning sky
And from its rose-and-copper conflagration
Taken counsel
Then a waterproof to work.

Now, and older
I gaze upon a fevered dawn
Alert to all the fires breaking out
And wonder if I am the only one
Who hears and heeds the warning.

Honesty

I dreamed of horses – chestnuts, bays
And dapples; any horse would do.
And Fortune smiled: I spent my days
Among them; it was all I knew.
I went to war with renegades
Who revelled in the ancient fight;
Found lion-hearted friends who made
My life complete, the whole world right.
We herded cattle, hunted, stood
Before the judges in the ring;
By hill and river, field and wood:
My everywhere, and everything.
And part of me is clinging on
To this belief: that going back
To that life would reset what’s wrong
With this one; that I only lack
That presence; and if I restore
That stable centre, then my mind
Would know the ease it did before
And I could leave my cares behind.

But if I’m honest with myself, set sentiment aside
It’s not the horses that I miss
But being young enough to ride.

Crossroads V

So time went by. I did my best, just getting through the day.
But it was tough with all the stuff the world put in my way.
One night I sat up late, the empty page an accusation.
My mind was numb. The hour had come to seek new inspiration.

And thus it was I found myself back at that lonely spot
I knew so well. No way to tell if he’d appear or not.
Perhaps this time he’d let me down and leave me here to stew:
Then the silence broke as a deep voice spoke: “Well, whaddya know. It’s you.”

I turned and saw the Devil wearing his infernal grin;
The Prada-suited, undisputed champion of sin.
He waved the sulphurous smoke aside, jabbed his pitchfork in the ground.
“Long time no see. So what are we here for this time around?”

“Oh, the usual,” I admitted. Satan groaned and rolled his eyes.
“You mean to say I came all this way for that? It’s no surprise
I guess; you always were high-maintenance. Poets always are.
Guys playin’ the blues are what I’d choose. They’re easier by far.”

He sat down on the slab of stone. “So, shoot. What’s on your mind?
But just the headlines: I got deadlines – and I’m already behind.”
“I’ve tried to hope and carry on just like you told me to,”
I said, “but I’m all out of rhyme and don’t know what to do.

“Each time I think we’ve hit the bottom things keep getting worse.
No end in sight to this long nightmare. It’s like there’s a curse
On us: disease, division, hate, corruption running rife;
It’s hard to give a positive perspective on this life.”

The Devil smiled. “You noticed, huh? I kinda hoped you might.
It’s taken years – you’ve no idea – but it’s finally comin’ right.
My plans have been frustrated and derailed in many ways;
But I declare we’re almost there: behold the End of Days.”

“What – wait: that’s it? There’s no more hope?” I asked. The Devil beamed.
“I could be wrong but I think you’ve gone too far to be redeemed
This time,” he said, “It seems to me it’s over now for good.
A short delay and then we’ll say ‘there goes the neighbourhood’.”

He gestured with a languid hand. “Just look around and tell
Me you don’t think you’re on the brink and it’s all going to hell.
Believe me, boy, it’s happenin’: it won’t be long before
The final stop, when the handcart drops you right outside my door.”

“And then what?” I demanded. Satan’s face creased in a frown.
“It’s not as though you folks don’t know how this will all go down,”
He said, “It’s all there in That Book; a detailed explanation.
I fail to see why this should be some kind of revelation.”

I looked up at the starlit sky, let out a shuddering breath.
It seemed to me that suddenly I felt the weight of death
Fall on my heart like lead. “This is the end; all’s said and done?”
“Sure looks that way. Been nice to play; now it’s game over – and I’ve won.”

I felt as though the ground was shifting underneath my feet.
This was absurd: had I just heard correctly? Were defeat
And ultimate destruction coming; was I the first to know?
And now I knew, what should I do? “Tell me it isn’t so,”

I pleaded. Satan shrugged. “Look, I’m not totally elated:
I’ll have my fun; but when I’m done, I’ll be – well, terminated.
So if you’ve got complaints to make about the master plan,
Don’t give me grief: your real beef is with – y’know. The Man.”

Now I got angry. “So it’s not your fault: you’re not to blame
For all this mess; I should address – ” “Hey, don’t you say that name
When I’m around, son; bad idea. We have some history,”
The Devil hissed. “Yeah, sure, you’re pissed. But spare a thought for me.”

“A thought for you?” I cried. “Oh, right. Please tell me that you’re joking.
And if you’re not, do give me what it is that you’ve been smoking.
You unleash plague and pestilence, false prophets spouting lies
And then ask me for sympathy as you face your demise?”

The Devil leapt up, seized his fork. I knew I’d gone too far.
His red eyes flashed, his long tail lashed. “Who do you think you are?
I am the Prince of Darkness – Lucifer – the one who fell.
You’re nothing, boy. I can destroy you, drag your soul to hell.”

Yet my courage did not fail me. “Yeah, you say that: but, you know?
From what I see, it wouldn’t be too far for me to go.
Your wicked wiles have ruined most things irretrievably.
So do your worst: won’t be the first time life’s been hell for me.”

Ol’ Satan stared; then he whooped and slapped a neatly-tailored thigh.
“I never thought you were the sort; the kind to do or die.
I’d all but given up on you; seemed like you were a dud.
But you’ve shown your sand, so I’ll stay my hand. I’m not out for blood.”

He leaned upon his pitchfork. “Son, the things you said are right.
But all hell’s let loose and there’s no use in tryin’, alone, to fight
The hordes of liars I’ve released; the vile, mendacious mob
That run the show for now. You know I’m only doin’ my job.”

“Then what I am supposed to do if fighting’s off the table?
I can’t strike back and clearly lack a means by which I’m able
To make a difference to things now, or those that lie ahead.
What place for me, or poetry? I might as well be dead.”

The Devil raised an eyebrow. “Son, remember who I am.
You might despair and think that there’s no cause to give a damn.
But listen very carefully. I really shouldn’t say it:
That gift you’ve got is worth a lot, and you should not betray it.

“When everything seems pointless and the world is turnin’ dark
That is the time for words that rhyme; you hold the magic spark
That helps to keep the hope alive that one day will dawn brighter.
It’s what poets do; the world needs you to be a lover, not a fighter.”

His cell phone buzzed. “Must skedaddle; things I gotta do.”
He grabbed his fork. “It’s good to talk, and now I’m tellin’ you
That some day it’s all over. Don’t wish your time away.”
When the smoke had cleared, he’d disappeared. And I did not fear the day.

Been wanting to write a fifth part of my idiotic Crossroads sequence for a while, and it finally came to me yesterday. I intended this to be my last conversation with His Infernal Highness The Prince of Darkness, but I’m already missing him, and can’t entirely rule out another diabolical midnight rendezvous at some point. Not sure which I should be more concerned about, really: that these imaginary dialogues with the Devil are such a good way to get things straight in my mind; or that I enjoy writing ludicrous doggerel ballads so much! Answers on a postcard…Have a great weekend, y’all. N.

Heartwarming

A happy autumn morning’s work:
Ten hundredweight of warmth and light
All passing through my rough-gloved hands
Safe now, stacked up and covered over.

All those odd angles, planes and faces
Edges, corners, bark and splinters
Locked and jammed tight in together;
A mighty wall against the cold.

And every lump of ash and oak
Is like a gift I give myself;
A hoard of shining gold and rubies
Held against a fickle future.

And when the nights come armed with steel
This simple labour is rewarded
With the comfort of my loved ones.
And in this moment, I am aglow.

Outlook

My father mentioned
once, apropos of nothing,
that in this place
he’d lived in thirty years
this view
was his favourite.

Over the churchyard wall
across five miles of fields and hedges
trees so dense no house or road breaks in
and ending in a high green hill
its slopes soft now but ever scarred
by centuries of working.

And still, we never sat, we two
on this old weathered bench
warmed by an autumn sun
and gazed on it together.
And now, I think, perhaps
we never will.