Turning the tide

Big yellow machines
Crawl over the shingle
Like an armoured division
On a seaside day out;
A Tonka Toy D-Day
Securing the beachhead
Advancing westwards
Ten tonnes at a time.

Shifting and shaping
Loading and levelling
Leaving their track-treads
Ribbed in the stones;
Taking dominion
Imposing order
Shoving the longshore drift
Into reverse.

Yet as they labour
Grey-green waves gather
Freighted with foam
And the weight of the world;
Undertow churning
Breaking in thunder
Laughing at diesel
Hydraulics and steel.

Haul down the standard
Hand in our weapons
Know when we’re beaten
Withdraw from the field.
Or dig in deeper
Shore up our defences
Think of our loved ones
And fight to the end?

 
 

A couple of weeks ago, I took a ride to Seaford on the Sussex coast, where the local authorities are engaged in one of their periodic attempts to redistribute the beach shingle, which the sea relentlessly transports from west to east in a process known as longshore drift. Even as the phalanx of heavy machinery toiled, a powerful westerly drove huge waves against the beach, underscoring the ultimate futility of the endeavour. I was a boy once, so I enjoyed watching it all and wanted to write about it: it took me until yesterday to make the election connection. N.

Democratic deficit

How do you choose
When there’s no real choice.
How are we heard
When we have no voice.
What is fair play
When all players cheat
Who wins when all roads
Lead to defeat.
Where is the truth
In the obvious lies
The statements that shock
But no longer surprise.
How do we stand
On this soft, shifting ground
When all tongues are tied
And all hands are bound.
What hope for hope
In this swirling despair
What chance for dreams
When no one will dare.
What will remain
When everything’s lost
Who pays the price
And who counts the cost.

Waiting

Rough plough
The furrows’ edges like ancient walls
Awaiting their final ruin.

Rooks swirl
Like tattered umbrellas blown aloft
Caught between soil and sky.

Bare trees
Beech, ash and oak in hedgerows, by headlands,
Twist in the wind’s busy fingers.

Brown stream
Bides its time, brooding, building its strength
Slyly testing its banks.

Dark clouds
Raise ramparts and towers beyond the far hills
Ready to settle everything.

 
 
Little nature poem on the day the [third in four years] general election campaign gets fully under way. It all feels hopeless, pointless and ultimately doomed; nothing will be properly ‘settled’ by this farrago, but events beyond our control will finally seal our benighted country’s fate. Trying to be optimistic, but it’s hard. N.

Pause

This the subatomic beat of unrecorded time
That accommodates infinity
And where all may be accomplished or undone:

The fraction of a fraction of an inch
Between the fugitive’s foot and the treacherous twig
The curious outstretched finger and the flame;

The millionth of a millionth of a moment
Before two fenders touch, the rope gives way
The bullet strikes, the dagger’s tip breaks skin;

The last chance of a last chance to decide
To burn the letter, cap the pen
Bite back the fateful word.

A house of cards, a coin stood on its edge.
We hold our breath, dare not move
And pray for night to end.

 
 

I wrote this piece after walking the dog the other night, following the latest round of stomach-churning, heart-in-mouth votes in the House of Commons that could have propelled us headlong out of the European Union this time next week. (It might still happen, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly pointless trying to follow events in Westminster, much less predict them.) N.

If I could

I would

Pen some pleasant paean
To the fire-tinted fall
The heavy apples hanging
By the garden wall
The splash of geese arriving
On the silver pond
The view across the ploughland
To the hills beyond.
The buzzard slowly circling
In the endless blue
Or even of the weather;
Anything would do.

But when the world is burning
And danger is at hand
With enmity and violence
Poisoning our land;
When all we knew is ending
And everything’s in doubt
The darkness is encroaching
And the lights are going out

What is the poet’s duty?
Who am I working for?
Do I serve truth and beauty
Or rise and march to war?

Endgame

All we can do is wait
Helpless, powerless
As the long game plays out.

We are not participants
Muddied, bloodied
Who can change the final score

Umpires or officials
Bristling, whistling
Empowered to enforce the rules

Fans or spectators
Baying, praying
Who choose to watch, and will be entertained.

No. We are locked outside
Ignored, deplored
Knowing we have already lost.

Crossroads – Part 3

Deep darkness closed around me as I lay there, wide awake:
A shapeless dread swirled in my head; a fear I could not shake.
As the church clock in the sleeping town tolled out the midnight bell
I dressed in haste and then retraced the steps I knew so well.

One empty road ran west to east, the other north to south.
And where they met the stage was set. My heart was in my mouth.
The full moon slipped behind a cloud. A silence fell. And then
A voice I knew: “Well, well; it’s you. And so we meet again.”

I turned. There Satan stood once more. He gave a ghastly smile.
“How long’s it been? I haven’t seen you out here in a while.
What brings you to this fateful place at this ungodly hour?
You here to make a deal; to stake your soul for some new power?”

I took my courage in both hands. “You broke your word,” I said.
He didn’t speak, but my knees went weak as I saw his eyes glow red.
I went on: “We agreed that you would help me write some stuff.
And in return my soul would burn. You said things could get rough.

I know in hard times and dark days is where real poems are;
But with everything that’s happening, I think you’ve gone too far.
You’ve unleashed forces much too great. What gentle heart can cope
With all this strife, endure a life devoid of joy or hope?”

The Devil laughed. “I’m sorry, son; not sure that I can see
The problem here, but so I’m clear: you think it’s down to me
That Brexit, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and climate change
Have come along? Well, boy, you’re wrong: yeah, I’m good, but my range

Of diabolic miseries for you folks ain’t that wide.
I ain’t to blame, though it’s a shame I’m not. God knows I’ve tried.”
“But what about our bargain?” I protested, feeling bold.
“I’m way too stressed to write my best. I think I’ve been mis-sold.”

Ol’ Satan shrugged. “It ain’t my fault you’re led by cheats and fools.
I tempt ‘em, true, but only you elect ‘em. Them’s the rules.”
He grinned. “Don’t worry. You can trust your pal Beelzebub:
Be sure they’ve got a special spot in my infernal club.”

Then he sighed. “Truth is, this Devil gig ain’t all it used to be.
I do my worst, but they get there first. They’re running rings round me.
And when I look at all those crooks, the charlatans and liars
Who run the show, I think: ‘You know, perhaps I’ll just retire.’”

We stood there at the crossroads, just as we’d done twice before.
“What now?” I said. He shook his head. “This time, son, I’m not sure.”
He smoothed his Prada jacket, gazed down at his cloven feet.
Then shrugged again. “Can’t help you, friend. You finally got me beat.”

I snapped. “Come on: you know I have to write of the events
They’ve ushered in; but I can’t begin to make the slightest sense
Of all the rage, division and the damage being done.
Hard as I try, the well’s run dry. Help me, O Wicked One.”

Then Satan looked me in the eye. I shuddered. “Very well,”
He softly drawled, and my whole skin crawled. “Then pack your bags for Hell.
I’ll give you all the words and grit you need to be the voice
Of unity; and then let’s see if you live to rue your choice.

“The fact is, son, you’ll waste your time: most folks have no desire
To be disabused of their own views. You’ll be preaching to the choir
Or trying to win round hearts and minds that were made up long ago.
Don’t look to me for sympathy when it turns out I told you so.”

“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” I said. The Devil glared.
“Oh really?” he asked sneeringly. “Not many men have dared
To answer back; and those that did are wishing fervently
They never had. You think I’m bad now? Just you wait and see.”

“I’m sorry, Mighty Prince,” I gasped, “I really meant no harm.
“But I’m not a man who thinks he can do anything to calm
A fevered nation, heal the fractures, make the whole thing right.
I just need ways to get through days and sleep again at night.”

The red flame in his eyes died down. I gulped and breathed again.
“Son, I like you. But I can’t do a thing to ease your pain:
Remember that my job is spreading discord and despair.
I’d lose my clout if word got out that I’d been known to care.”

A faint light touched the eastern sky. I said: “Time’s running short
And here I am, still in a jam. You know, I really thought
That third time would be lucky; you and I would seal a pact
And we’d both win from our part in this hellish double-act.”

A sulphurous cloud erupted as he snarled: “Boy, don’t you see?
“These crazy times are full of rhymes for you; but look at me:
I’m old-school and I can’t compete with this new breed of hood.
Thought I’d done well at raising Hell; but these bad boys are good.”

The earth revolved. The bright stars wheeled. The Devil gave a cough.
“Well, that’s it, son; I guess we’re done. High time I headed off.
But you keep writing, boy, you hear? This is the lot you’ve drawn.”
A puff of smoke, and I awoke to face another dawn.

 
 

My latest poetic encounter with the Prince of Darkness…a little light relief on a day as hot as hell. N.

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.

When we have escaped

The all-encircling fear
And jeopardy of haunted years

I want to stand here
On this smiling shore
Hand-in-hand with you, my love;

Gaze out on the rugged islands
And listen to the rising tide
Wash gently on the sand;

Knowing that, at last,
It is all over
And just about to start.

 
 

Ah, Brittany. Those bastards in Westminster might strip us of our freedom of movement, but they’ll never take our dream. No pasarán. N.

When is enough

Enough?
How much of this
Do we have to take
Before the gloves come off
The game-face slips
And we rip away the last veneer
Of careful self-restraint;

When can I
Roar out, full-throated
That I am done;
Gone so far beyond
Sick and tired
Of the endless, senseless madness;
That I am good and ready
To set the streets aflame;

When will we
Cease watching, waiting;
See, finally, there is no hope
Outside ourselves
And rise, break down
The gates they hold against us –
Or have we now allowed too much
And left it far too late?