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.

Visa approved

I wouldn’t have her
not go.
Not for a moment.

There is nothing for her
here in this small, choking town
that thinks and knows of nothing beyond itself.

That time-baked city, Cezanne-tinted,
and all its faces, voices, promises
are hers, hard-earned and long awaited.

And in this quiet morning
I wrap her leaving round me;
feel its weight, and breathe.

After a protracted and stressful process, our daughter has finally been granted her student visa and can head off on Sunday to Aix-en-Provence for her third year of undergrad study, which she’s doing at Aix-Marseille University (the largest in France, with around 80,000 students). We’ll miss her terribly, of course; but I’m certain it’ll be a transformative experience for her, and I’m beyond delighted she’s taking this amazing opportunity. Bon voyage, ma chère fille.

a lonely war

You Hills have limits –
sides, slopes, summits –
I can measure and master
by muscle and mechanics.

Not so you, Winds:
without edges or apex
surrounding me, pounding me
tirelessly, full in the face.

But I’ll fight you –
together or one at a time –
with rage and resolve and refusal to quit
wherever, whenever you like.

Better you –
with your physics and physical pain
suffering to savour like single malt scotch
that ends when my feet touch the ground –

than the figments and phantoms
that stalk me inside
and I cannot outride, outwit or defeat
with training, or talent, or time.

Who but us

– the driven, the diehards
the hardy and hungry
the lifers, high-milers
the ones old enough to know better
or too young and eager to care;
the addicts and regulars
gripped by a habit
hard-wired and hard-won
that nothing and no one can break –

glories in going out there in this
when people with brains and ordinary lives
sit inside tutting and shaking their head
glad of the glass between them and the fear.

Who but us
pits muscles and bones
skin, blood and tissue
against fast-moving metal
the rush and the rage
of a world that would rather we didn’t exist.

Who but us
willingly, knowingly
always takes the longest way round
the hardest road home
spinning it out for a couple more miles
a few more minutes stolen and added to life.

The ones who go further
longer and deeper
not really caring if we’re understood
or that none of this makes any sense.

And while there’s a road
miles to be ridden
air to be breathed
who but us
would we want to be?

Crossroads. Again.

My life had reached a flat dead end. No way that I could see
Which way to go; no sign to show the choices left to me.
I could not sleep. So as midnight chimed I quietly closed the door;
At a brisk, bold pace I approached the place I’d been three times before.

Now as then the sky was black as a cellar filled with coal.
No moon in sight and I felt the night lie heavy on my soul.
Would he appear, I wondered; had I made my trip in vain?
Then a shudder of dread as a soft voice said, “And so, we meet again.”

I slowly turned. My palms were damp. Sweat prickled in my hair.
My heartbeat raced. And now I faced him: Satan, standing there
Immaculate in Prada as he ever was. His smile
Was cruel and keen. “I haven’t seen you out here in a while.

So, what’s up, son? No; let me guess: you’re seeking my assistance
With making rhymes, just like old times. I admire your persistence.
But before you start in asking me to help you change your fate
As you can tell, the world’s gone to Hell; I’ve plenty on my plate.

My hands are full with all the shit that’s going down right now;
The world’s in flames and all the blame’s been put on me somehow.
Oh sure, it’s good for business when you folks are in a mess,
But there’s no escape from the ol’ red tape that comes with that success.

You don’t know what it’s like down there: we’re full right to the top
With grift and sleaze, corrupt MPs: a real bumper crop
Of sinners, ne’er-do-wells and crooks; trade’s never been so strong.
I’m eyeballs-deep, don’t get no sleep – and now you come along.”

He stretched his shoulders, rubbed his eyes, scratched his unshaven chin.
Beneath his stare I wondered where and how I should begin.
“Look, I like you, son, though Lord knows why, so say what’s troublin’ you.
But make it quick, because I can’t stick around: got stuff to do.”

I took a deep breath. “All right,” I said, “I’ll lay it on the line:
I know for you and your wicked crew that things are going fine.
But I look at my life and wonder where my hope has gone.
What do I gain from all this pain; why should I carry on?”

The Devil looked at me askance, a red glow in his eyes.
“Oh, something small; I’m glad that’s all. If I may summarise:
We gone from helping you write poems, maybe get some sleep
To life and death in just one breath. I’d call that mission creep.”

“It’s you who got me here,” I said, “Thought you were on my side;
We had a deal; but life’s revealed the painful truth: you lied.
You said you’d help me find my voice if I gave up my soul;
But you tell me: where’s poetry in this infernal hole?

What use am I and what I write when life has reached this state:
I might as well join you in Hell and save myself the wait.
Why shouldn’t I find a way out to release me from this curse.
The whole position, by your own admission, is bad – and getting worse.”

He shrugged. “It’s like I said before: we see things different ways.
What’s great for me might seem to be for you the end of days.
But if you’re serious we’ll play the oldest game in town.
No A to Z, it’s binary: stay up, or come on down.”

“Is heaven not an option, then?” I asked. My voice was faint.
Ol’ Satan grinned, “’Fraid not; you’ve sinned too much to be a saint.
Besides,” he said and shot his cuffs, “you’re better off with me.
Their climate’s good, but I know you would prefer our company.

Sure, I’d be glad to have you there; you’re always welcome, son.
But now is not the time; you’ve got a lot left to be done.
And when you’ve done it, then perhaps you’ll join me and admire
The place I dwell: great views of Hell, across the Lake of Fire.”

Then he fixed me with a bloodshot eye. “Son, there will come a day
When this will end; but I recommend you don’t speed it on its way.
So count your blessings. I didn’t say that. Don’t you dare repeat it.
Sure things are rough; but look, you’re tough. Hang in there. You can beat it.”

“That’s your advice? Just suck it up? You’ve nothing else?” I said.
“No bargain struck to change my luck? Just struggle on instead?
I thought you’d think big, work the angles, beat a different drum.
I can’t believe I was so naïve. I wish I’d never come.”

The Devil glared. “Be careful, boy; you’re startin’ to upset me.
Time’s come for you to go and do this for yourself. You get me?
You’ll hurt, for sure, but when it’s over you’ll thank me for showin’
The old sayin’s true: when you’re halfway through Hell, best to keep on goin’.”

He checked his Rolex. “Gotta run. I need to see conditions
Are suitably unsavoury for incoming politicians.
Adios,” he said and with a whiff of sulphur he was gone.
What he said was true. All we can do is hope, and carry on.

Needed a shake-up and a talking-to this week, so I consulted an old friend. As usual, he was right on the money. N.

Alternative histories

I find myself surrounded now
By millions drenched in pure nostalgia –
One hundred per cent proof against
The world they see as forced upon them –
For a time and country they never knew
That like Arcadia or Atlantis
Is all the more beguiling
For never having been.
Their wish to rewrite and rewind our history
And fervent fealty to their imagined glory
Have won for them the crown and flag
I used to see as mine as well
And in so doing made a shell-shocked fiction
Of all I thought I knew.
And so I will allow myself
A little longing of my own
For another life I never lived
And, had it been handed to me then
Would probably have refused
As one too frightened, small, suburban
For something so grand, hard-edged, expansive.
So permit me a moment’s misty-eyed
Far-back-reaching, sadly sighing
Regret for all I never was
And in all honesty, humility and likelihood
Never could have been.

Night charm

And so it is and so it goes and so
The day goes down and down now goes the day.
And when the day goes down where does it go
To watch and wait, and will I find the way?
And this is this and that is that and there
The night comes in and in now comes the night;
And who is who and what is what and where
Are we in all of this? No sound, no sight.
But step by step and by and by it brings
A dream of then and now and yet to be;
And in that moment, suddenly all things
Are seen and comprehended perfectly.
And thus it ends and ends now thus my rhyme
Upon the brink of sleep, and edge of time.