Father and son

They put Dad out to grass when he was only fifty-three;
Looks like the world is getting set to do the same to me.
Different situations, generations and times;
But it wasn’t his fault then; and sure as hell it won’t be mine.

He wasn’t digging coal or building cars or welding steel;
Don’t matter that your collar’s white: the pain’s the same, and real.
Another blameless victim of the corporate machine
When some new broom blows through the door and sweeps the whole place clean.

I kept my independence, fought to follow my own track;
No status, no security; no one ever had my back.
I sweated through the hard times, found the means to make it pay;
Now our so-called leaders seem hellbent on taking it away.

Our country’s on the edge; and when it goes down, so will I.
All I’ve built reduced to ashes in the blinking of an eye.
With you beside me, maybe I can find a different fate.
But I’m scared, my heart is heavy. And the hour grows late.

Deflation

Grey poplars hiss displeasure
At this out-of-sync dishwater sky,
Mercury sliding, clouds on the ground.
Draggled wheat fields darken,
The shocked land losing hard-won riches
Laid down and laboured for.

And in the leaves’ wind-silvered sibilance
I hear the slow escape of summer:
A punctured season
And a long, slow road ahead.

 

Last little nature poem before I head off on holiday. And given the current state of Britain’s weather (awful) politics (shameful) and economic outlook (dreadful) I can safely, though sadly, say I have never been more ready to leave this shambolic, benighted country behind. All we can do is hope that things will improve come the autumn. A bientôt, mes amis. N.

Kestrel

Out of the alders
The kestrel arcs
Like a thrown knife;
Drives himself deep
Into the oak. Glares,
Dares me to want or wish for more
Than this short, sharp shot of him.

I don’t.

In a kinder, saner life,
That scimitar slash
Of slate and copper
Would be all I needed:
Here, now,
Inch-deep in leaf-mould and winter slop
I feel the weight of this
Unmanufactured moment
And all the riches of his weaponed grace
Settle in my pockets –

The harsh, hard coin of worlds
Away from our imagined realm
Where debt is credit
Gluttony no mortal sin
And greed is made
Our highest good.

 

As so often before, I find myself gratefully indebted to Tom Davis. I’d been thinking about writing another ‘bird poem’ for a while, and when I saw our resident kestrel down in the woods yesterday, I knew I had my subject. But it was Tom’s comments on my previous piece, Battleground State, that finally crystallised my ideas; I hope he won’t mind my appropriating some of his wise words for this brief detour into free verse. N.

Rondeau: Hard times

In these hard times some still acquire
Great wealth and all that they desire;
The rest of us must simply go
Where we are carried by the flow
And watch our deep-held dreams expire.

The banker claims he’s worth his hire,
Yet daily he is proved a liar
By all the billions that we owe
                            In these hard times.

And as the favoured few conspire
To keep their fat out of the fire,
We mourn our children: they, we know,
Will reap this wretched crop we sow.
We’ve been sold out – but who’s the buyer
                            In these hard times?

 

Still getting to grips with the rondeau form, but really enjoying the work: it’s certainly given me a whole new appreciation of the craft, as well as the beauty, in John McCrae’s timeless elegy In Flanders Fields. N.

Heroic verse: Hour of need

Hour of need

We have no heroes now. The ones who claim
To lead us will not win a lasting fame
For mighty deeds or wisdom. Such small men,
So weak and venal, are forgotten when
The history books are written. So we ask
Why there is no knight equal to the task –
No Galahad or Tristram who can ride
For truth and honour through the country wide;
No Lancelot to lift us, raise our eyes
To higher, greater things. We made our prize
The transient and tawdry, made our goal
Possession of the world, and lost our soul.
And now, the wind we sowed grows swift and strong,
Rips out our shallow roots, blows us along
And all the treasures that we thought we’d won
Are vanished, lost like frost-flowers in the sun.
We need a hero, one who has the power
To stir new hope in this unhappy hour –
A champion who’ll come to take the field
For us, the common folk, and never yield
To avarice, succumb to lust for gold,
Whose honour shines unstained. It was foretold
That when our island stood in dire need
One long lost would awaken and take heed
Of our distress, come to our aid. Maybe
That time has come and, far across the sea,
In Avalon, bright trumpets stir the ghost
Of Arthur and the whole Round Table host
To take up arms, come forth with ringing cries:
Rex quondam rexque futurus, arise.”

 

After reading The Death of King Arthur, Peter Ackroyd’s masterly retelling of Sir Thomas Mallory’s classic tale, I wanted to write something with an Arthurian theme, and it seemed the ideal opportunity to have a crack at the Heroic Verse form. I’ve enjoyed myself enormously, as you can probably tell. By pure coincidence, I’d just finished the poem when I heard the news that the infamous former RBS chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin had been stripped of his honour. Knights really ain’t what they used to be.

Autumn Statement

I don’t have any answers:
I can’t begin to tell
When things will all come right again
And we’ll escape this hell
Of joblessness and hopelessness
Inflation, debt and pain.

But I can show you where the first
Wild daffodils are found,
The woodland glades where sunlight plays
The fox’s hunting ground,
The stream where kingfishers flash by
Old paths and secret ways.

For as our vanities are burned
The wild world stands immune.
Grass grows, trees bud, rivers run clear,
Each bird sings out his tune.
And when the money-men have gone
Such things will still be here.

Sowing discord

Seeds of change

One for the rook
One for the crow
One to wither
One to grow.

One for the deluge
One for the drought
One each for the pigeon
And mouse to dig out.

One for the subsidy
One for the crash.
One for the Government
Desperate for cash.

One for the trader
In futures, who bets
On prices, then pockets
The millions he gets.

One for the banks.
Make that two – make that ten.
No, make it a billion.
And then start again.

One for the climate,
Now warming, it seems.
One for our hopes.
One for our dreams.

One for our gluttony
One for our greed
None for the millions
We choose not to feed.

One for the rook,.
One for the crow.
One to wither.
One to grow.

The farmers are already busy drilling next year’s cereal crops, and I’ve had the old rhyme about seeds that bookends this poem going round in my head all day. Blame the Party Conference season for the rather downbeat tone of the stuff in between!

A tale of our times

Cuts

He walks
Towards the grey stone house
Like a battlefield surgeon coming down the line
Or a man who, shaving hastily, contrived to nick
An artery in his neck.
The warm red rain has spattered his face,
Soaked his cap and shirt-collar,
Stained overalls and hands like some apprentice butcher’s.

He knows
This was a task he should have tackled
Back when they were calves,
The horns mere buds, and their removal
No more than a touch of glowing iron,
A brief sharp stink of burning hair –
A job for life in a minute’s easy work.
Now, left so late, it took three men
And a whole sodding day of trodden feet,
Shouting, straining, geysers of muck,
Maddened beasts slamming on sleepers and steel;
An improvised corrida, short on finesse,
Long on blood.

He begrudges
The time, the hurt, the fat fee to the sweating vet;
Still, it had to be done:
Seeing them swaggering into the yard,
Cocksure with their weaponed heads,
There was no question. The wounds, torn wire
And their seigneurial strutting at the trough
Left him no choice
But the crush, the needle and the blade. Yet

He finds
He cannot say who won this one. He’s left
Slumped and blasted, arms hanging like empty sleeves; the beasts
Bewildered, polls still stunned
By adrenaline local and the shock of shears.
All change in the herd, he thinks:
A social shuffling, a shift in power.
A bullet bitten, the right thing done.
But as he stumbles in to wash and eat
He shakes his head. And does not smile.

Black and white decision

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.

 

Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.

Under pressure

Under pressure

The big John Deere
Is working late;
After so long waiting
For a reborn sun and drying wind
To strip winter from the soil
They’re staying out,
Getting on.
The ten-foot, two-tonne roller
Treads thick, green scents
From the tender grass;
Driving in frost-lifted stones,
Making pancakes out of molehills,
As it wraps broad silver bandages
Round the bruised and pummelled pasture.
But these bent blades will be re-forged,
Stronger, and in greater numbers,
Ready for the tearing mouths
And hooves of summer cattle.
The roller passes on –
No time to lose –
And the soft earth breathes again:
When pressed, we do not break;
Though crushed, we do not die.

 

I promised my good friend and fellow poet John Stevens another tractor poem; I had something different in mind, but this one came along first, during a ride on the Paramount yesterday as afternoon gave way to evening. Apologies for the pic; a long-range phone-camera effort, I’m afraid.