One shot

Life
Is not a rehearsal.

It’s an audition

From the moment heaven gives us
The nod to begin
We’re out there, unaccompanied,
With no chance to start again.

Our first notes
Shrill, unformed
Born of ancient dread, defiance
And bewilderment.

If they do not stop us
We go on
Interpreting the score
The best we can

Our performance measured
Judged, observed
Endlessly picked over
Until our very bones are all laid bare.

And all the while
The threat, unsaid,
Of what befalls if we are not
Note-perfect.

We play our hearts out
Wringing every drop from every line
Hoping, pleading
It’s what they want to hear

Always striving
To please the panel
Land the part
Make the grade.

Until the last cadenza
And the long diminuendo
That ends in breathless silence
Standing alone on stage
Wondering if we did enough
And being told

We’ll let you know.

 

 

Paterfamilias

I have a terror
Of turning into
My father.

A visceral, mortal
Lyingawakeatthreeinthemorning
Dread of plaid flannel shirts
Soft shoes, drawstring waistbands
Feeling the cold
Declaring they don’t
Write them or make them
Like that any more
Trying to hold conversations
In buttery fingers
Wondering where
All these cars came from
And why are they going so fast
Remembering when
It was all trees here
And staring at this screen
Helplessly demanding
What in God’s name
Does any of it mean.

But since I’ll never be
The one with the toolbox
And the strong, quick hands
The one with the shed
Full of jars of just what you’ve been looking for
The one who always has time
To be counsellor, confidant,
Co-conspirator, confessor
The one you have only to ask
And for whom nothing
Is too much trouble
The one who remains calm
And unfailingly finds the right words
When it’s all gone horribly wrong

I have nothing to fear
And everything.

Vanishing act

How I long
To stay lost;
Unheard, unseen,
All-but forgotten;
Off the chart
And out of time.

Walking, hidden
In some deep hollow of the hills
Among old oaks
Or way beyond
The low-tide line
Where none but the gulls and wild winds go.

Wilfully mislay myself;
Step off the road,
Rip the map into a thousand shreds
And watch them spin away.
Cut the line
And all the ties that bind.

No more words;
Just thoughts and birdsong, breeze and sun.
Nothing moving faster than the clouds,
No voices but the trees’ deliberations.
Only the shadows to show the hour;
Nothing to do, and all day to do it in.

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.

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.

Lucky me

IMG_8827

Sunday afternoon.
Warm and drowsy
As blackberry wine.
Walking through fields
I’ve known for thirty years.
Doormat stubble, shining grass,
A whiff of windfall crab-apples.

Dog nosing ahead,
My daughter at my side
Chattering like a magpie;
Still too young
To have her tongue
Tied by time and chemistry.

What strange chance
Made me glance
At the ground
Right there
Right then

And from the crowds around it
Light on that

One

Single stem
Of Trifolium repens
Ignoring its own bill matter
And getting its double helix
In a twist

Throwing out
Two extra tokens
Of pure dumb luck.

Plucked it
(Who wouldn’t?)
Wondered
Just what I held then
And what to do next
With my million-to-one shot:

Line up my seven numbers,
Put my shirt on some long-odds nag,
Back the Texans all the way to Arizona,
Book my ticket to The Strip

Or maybe
I already had
All the luck
Any one man needs.

 
 

More free verse. That universal talisman of good fortune, the four-leafed clover, is a genetic mutation that pops up roughly once for every 10,000 of its common-or-garden trifoliate brethren. Five-leafed specimens like the one I found at the weekend are held to be luckier still, since the odds of finding them are, literally, a million to one. Even so, that’s still roughly 14 times more likely than winning the lottery! N.

Mixed metaphors

I’m neither worm nor tiger; neither flesh nor fowl.
Not wholly cheese or purely chalk. I’m neither lark nor owl.
Not Mozart or Metallica. Don’t see in black or white.
I’m neither here nor there. Not quite in darkness, or the light.
I’m neither straight nor crooked. Not commonplace or rare.
Not hunting with the eager hounds, or running with the hare.
Coming or going – who can say? Do I push or pull?
Charged positive or negative? Half empty, or half full?
Not Lance or Bradley, Maître Jacques or Raymond Poulidor.
Not maillot jaune or lanterne rouge. No less, and nothing more.
I’ve lost myself. I don’t know where I am, or where I’ve been.
I’m north-north-west and south-south-east and all points in between.
One moment following my nose, the next chasing my tail.
I’m EasyJet and Concorde, Deutsche Bahn and British Rail.
All hearing without listening. All looking without seeing.
Whatever gets me through the day. Just doing. Never being.

Remount

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.

Comfort zone

Wish I could have one of those ‘comfort zones’
They talk so much about. A place of ease,
Calm and contentment, where my faithless bones
Would never ache, my mind would never freeze
In terror of the blank page; where I’d walk
The woods, play my guitar, watch freight trains roll,
Ride bikes and horses, drink cold beer and talk
About the deep things stirring in my soul.
In all my years and miles, I’ve never found
That sacred state where I’m in full command
Of how and when, and feel there’s solid ground
Beneath my feet, and everything’s in hand.
Can’t understand why they’d have me believe
Once found, this is a place I’m meant to leave.

 
 

The irony being, of course, that this is yet another Shakespearean sonnet 🙂 Have a fine weekend, everyone. N.

Man in the mirror

Who is this man? I knew him once, I swear,
But though he seems familiar, I can’t place
Him. Did we meet out on the road somewhere,
Drink beer, load hay, play music, ride bikes, chase
Loose cows (or ladies)? Something in his face
Speaks of things as they were long lives ago;
Of half-forgotten dreams and days of grace.
He’s lithe and quick; makes me feel stiff and slow,
Set in my ways. The world is his to go
And conquer still, while duty, age and fear
Have vanquished me. We could be friends, I know,
But time is short: some day, he’ll disappear
And leave the mere remembrance of his light
Until it, too, is taken by the night.

 
 

A Spenserian sonnet – my first! – in response to a beautiful example given to us by the wonderful Tom Davis over at fourwindowspress. The rhyme scheme is a challenge, but it feels good to stretch myself again. Thank you for the inspiration, Tom – in this, as in so many other things. N.