Dream horse

Let me walk out of this dream
Into a field just touched by morning
There to find a fine horse standing
Low gold fire on his dark back.

I would approach him, hand held out
In truce. Gifts given, he would deign
To have me stroke his arching neck,
Speak softly in his all-hearing ear.

He would understand; we would be friends.
In his bulk and warmth and strength
I would lose my fears, my smallness,
Forget all other things.

He waits for me, quiet and patient
Just beyond the edge of thought.
But still the fence broods, high and solid
And I cannot find the gate.


A lesson learned when I was young: always
Climb straight back on each time you take a fall.
Had it drummed in on sweating, circling days
(With ‘heels down’, ‘elbows in’ and ‘sit up tall’).
They taught me well, those steely souls who forced
Me to get up, brush myself off, remount
And carry on each time I was unhorsed
And tasted dust (more times than I can count).
But now the saddle seems too high; the aches
And pains of years conspire to confound
A hell-for-leather comeback from mistakes
And wrecks, leave me afoot, tied to the ground.
I have a choice: to stand here at the rail
And watch; or try again, and dare to fail.

Droighneach III: Tiercel

He stood sixteen hands high, and then some. Thoroughbred,
Good-natured, but never stirred the stands. Bay, begotten
Of a storied sire, too far from the fountainhead
For higher things. His star fell; broken, failed, forgotten.

I came across him in rough-and-ready retirement.
Little lame, but tough, his heady past and programming
Still chasing through him – an electric enchantment –
And, blood racing, I grew into him, hammering

Cross-country; a shy boy belatedly believing
In himself, the joy of speed; and through the thundering
Of hooves and heart, I heard my soul sing plain, perceiving
The start of feeling whole, ending my wild wondering

About my place and purpose. Perilous, predicting
Life so lightly: no trace of it, or him, evident
Now; fear, finance, tyrant Time’s tireless roll, restricting
Duties – all hold me here. But the pull’s persistent.


Here’s how stressful my week has been: writing another droighneach counts as fun and relaxation…

Anyway, my third go-round at this horribly intricate form is a tribute to Tiercel, a craggy, big-hearted ex-racehorse I rode throughout the glorious summer of 1984, when I was a gauche, insecure and insular lad of 15, and had started riding just the previous winter. Swaggering around on a giant bay steeplechaser when all your friends (and your sister, who’s been riding for years) are still on ponies does wonders for a fragile sense of self. He was well past his best (which hadn’t been that great anyway, by all accounts) but once he got going, boy could he motor: his half-brother was the brilliant Night Nurse, who won the blue-riband Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham two years running.
It was 30 years ago this summer, and Tiercel was well into his teens then, so he’ll be long gone now. But I’ve never forgotten him, and although I haven’t ridden in years, even now few things swell my heart like the grace and courage of the English Thoroughbred. Happy trails, big fella. N.

Shadorma: A wet Monday

Rain returns
Drowning a week’s dust.
The woods weep
Roads glisten
The down-pipes chuckle, pleased to
Be busy again.

Sit and gaze,
Glad I’m not going
Hauling hay
To dumb sheep
Fixing fence, chasing loose cows,
Forking steaming muck,

Or dragging
Some reluctant nag
From a warm
Dry stable
To plod fetlock-deep, and return
Stiff with mud and cold.

Done all that:
In no real hurry
To go back.
But a bit
Of me still thinks of it as
Real work. Not like this:

Stuck inside
In front of a screen,
Making words
Stand in line,
And only sweating when the
Internet goes down.

Just as well
I have a dog here
Looking up
Grab coat, hat and boots, head out
To find my old self.

Ruba’i: If wishes were horses

There is a horse for me to ride
Out there, my brand burned on his hide
His bay coat shining in the sun
With all the country open wide

Before us, and we’re free to run:
We’ve paid our dues, the work’s all done.
And so we’ll roam the smiling land
Our minds in tune, our wills as one.

This horse of mine’s a real hand;
He knows his stuff, and has the sand
To go all day, then go some more.
We need no words: we understand

Each other perfectly. I’m sure
He reads my thoughts: even before
I’ve asked, he’ll speed up, turn or slow
Then bring me safely to my door.

He is not real, of course. I know
He’s just a crazy dream, and so
I guess I should just let him go.
But it’s so hard to let him go.

Mending fences

The wind ripped out the flimsy fence that kept
A fragile peace between the warring horses.
In haste, we gathered torches, hammer, nails,
Electric wire, stout wooden posts and rails,
Zipped coats, pulled caps down tight and then set out
Like rustic sappers going up the line,
A slipping, stumbling, tripping, fumbling, slog
Across a no-man’s-land of mud and weather.
Together, in that wild, gale-whipped world
Of liquid ground and winter-hardened rain,
We drove posts deep, strung wire and hoisted timber,
The watching horses wondering why we laughed.
Till filthy, frozen, with our task fulfilled,
We marvelled at the first enduring thing
We’d ever built between us. And the last.


Another blank-verse retread of an old, previously unpublished free-verse piece, this from 2004. When I was about 15, my dad and I dashed out one foul winter night to the yard where our horses were living, to make some emergency fence repairs by torchlight in a howling gale. It’s getting on for 30 years ago now, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being out there with him, doing a real job of work together. This one’s for you, Pa. N.

Fenced in

I have no endless prairie, no great plain;
No mesas rising from a sagebrush sea
Or mountains walling up my western sky.
No buckskin horse, a partner on the trail
With cutting witchcraft bred in blood and bone
And courage that comes out in mad glissades
Of canyon sides, a fall of flesh and stone.
No hide-warmed leather’s creak, no old rimfire
Or saddle-horn to take my dallies round.
No riding drag with only dust to eat;
No rock-ringed fire, no coffee brewed so strong
A horseshoe floats upon it. No corral
Red barn or pick-up truck, no gravel road
To some snug cabin hidden in the pines.
The open range I thought I had is fenced
Subdued and settled, parcelled up and sold
To strangers. There’s no room to spread a loop
Without a fencepost catching it. And so
Afoot in all these acres I once rode
I watch the clouds, and listen to the wind
That hisses, mocking, in the gleaming wire.



They’re here, at last. I’ve missed them. As the days
Grow longer, so, like migrants, back they come
To bare, long-empty fields; the heavy hum
Of diesels drifting with the dust they raise.

The clay will not endure them with the rain
Of winter in it; dried by wind and sun
It welcomes them. Now there’s work to be done;
With share and tine they wake the land again.

The skylarks’ song, birds nesting in the wood
The lambs and daffodils, the flush of green
As buds appear – conventionally seen
As certain signs that Winter’s gone for good.

Me? In the rumble of a big John Deere,
The sudden stink of hot hydraulic oil
And sweet, sharp scent of rippling, fresh-ploughed soil
I feel the first deep stirrings of the year.

The teams of Shires and Clydesdales are long gone
And I lament their passing; but these new
And great beasts of the field complete my view
As underneath their wheels, the world rolls on.

Martian poems

Martian poems

– 1 –

Silent lords

A noble race, these silent lords,
Who walk on four long legs
And speak with their ears.

Their plodding servants,
Two legs short,
Feed them, dress them,
Clean their houses, tend their gardens,
And receive no word of thanks.

And when these mighty princes travel,
They take their bondsmen with them,
Slung like packs
On their broad backs.


– 2 –

The Red God

His image hangs in every home,
His effigy in every window:
The Red God is coming.

Ahead of him, the people race
From place to place
Their cheeks and purses hollowed out
By this frenzy in the cold.

For he must be propitiated
With gifts and feasts and sacrifice:
Only those who stand unblemished
Will know his favour on that night.

And yet, among the true believers,
The infidels wait furtively –
Another’s name upon their lips,
An ancient heresy in their hearts –
All but lost in the noise and glare
Of the Red God’s triumph.


I first came across Martian poetry back in 2004, had a go at writing some and really enjoyed it. Only now have I got round to publishing it. This pleasingly whimsical form, which was briefly in vogue in the late 70s/early 80s, centres on describing familiar things in unfamiliar ways – as though you were a Martian seeing them for the very first time, with no prior understanding of what they are, how they work, what they’re for and so on. The images can be surreal, surprising, and sometimes rather charming in their deliberate naivety: there’s also a whiff of the delightful Anglo-Saxon riddle verses about them, too, which I really love. These two are about horses and Santa Claus, by the way.

Leap of faith

A staggering feat

‘Jumps like a stag,’
The ads for hunters
In the Horse & Hound declare;
The familiar, forgivable
Hyperbole of horsemen;
Count your fingers after you shake hands.
Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

For no horse I sat in twenty years
Could match the handsome cocoa-coated
Four-point buck I flushed today:
Straight over a breast-high hawthorn hedge
Off a two-foot verge from a standing leap;
Then popped the sheep-net fence beyond
And blithely bounced away.

For no horse living ever knew
The tearing fear of running wild
From shining monsters borne on wheels
And finding ancient bolt-ways blocked
By thorn and wire and tarmac road.
To jump so high perhaps requires Man to be
Not on your back, but at your heels.