This is a sample of my poems over the years, in order of publication which is more or less the order of composition too. I may update it from time to time, or include requests for favourites among my poems should anybody have one. Click on a hyperlinked title to go to that poem.
Dwellers in a chalk and limestone country,
We never knew the well-watered valleys of Eden,
Whose Four Streams never ran dry,
The freshets and the fountains of that garden.
For long, it is said, we wandered in the desert
Where all the streams ran darkening into sand.
For survival, we sucked the damp grit
And in the dry storms held each other’s hand.
Faithful we may have been, yet had no faith
To smite the living granite with a staff.
We were not the kind for miracles.
It was enough sometimes to hear you laugh.
And now we have come to our own territory,
No Eden, but the pastureland is good.
The waters flow here unpredictably,
But here at least is neither sand nor flood.
And we, the fallen lovers, knowing thirst,
Learned long ago to play the waiting part,
And have most joy in knowing after cloudburst
The winterbournes and swallets of the heart.
It is strange to think that to you I shall always be
Someone else, that however much we agree
In mind and body and however true
Our love may be, to you I am always you.
All men are islands, so it has been said.
But islands spring from the one ocean bed.
If the seas of our division rolled away,
What joined us might lie open to the day.
But then, what seamed and blasted wilderness
Might be uncovered, what contrariness,
What strange and stranded monsters. Better so
To keep the seas between us, not to know
What lies beneath what seems serenity,
Accepting that to you I am not me,
Content with what is visible above,
The green and fertile islands of our love.
The little girl is lost among the books.
Two years old maybe, in bobble cap,
White lacy tights, red coat. She stands and looks.
‘Can’t see you, Mummy.’ Mummy, next row up,
Intent on reading answers absently:
‘I’m here, love.’ Child calls out again: ‘Can’t see.’
A large man, his intentions of the best,
Stoops: ‘Where’s Mummy, then?’ Child backs away.
Now the tall shelves threaten like a forest.
She toddles fast between them, starts to cry,
Takes the next aisle down and as her mother
Rounds one end disappears behind the other.
I catch the woman’s tired-eyed prettiness.
We smile, shake heads. The child comes back in sight,
Hurtles to her laughing, hugs her knees:
‘Found you!’ in such ringing pure delight
It fills the room, there’s no one left who’s reading.
The mother looks down, blinking. ‘Great soft thing.’
Even now, there are places that remember.
Here, where the rocks are rounded to the north
And sleek as seals from that old polishing,
Where valleys end mid-air, sawn-off, and lakes
Sudden in the hollows under crags,
Flash like kingfishers, the earth will dream.
They come back then. A million blue-white snails
Rasping their way with boulder-studded tongues. . .
Their licks and furrowings disturb her: see,
She shivers in her sleep, the sun has gone,
The wind is from the peak, the lake’s still eye
All pupil now stares inwards, black, opaque.
Ten thousand years are buried in that blink.
And where are we? Diminished, back to scale,
A scattered few, precarious in caves,
Enduring at the edges of her dream.
Again she cradles us with cruel love:
Her latest kind, whom she might come to favour
Or else, tomorrow, might scour off for good.
There ought to be a survey done, with maps.
One shouldn’t come upon them unawares.
I mean the places where you fall through time.
You know them by a lifting of the hairs,
A sudden tense alertness, not quite fear,
The air’s electric whisper: who goes here?
It happens anywhere: an old canal,
The corner of a field, a cobbled mews.
I’d plot them all, a pointillist of time.
I’ve worked it out, the colours that I’d use:
Vermilion for the present, shading back.
The past’s autumnal spectra end in black.
My maps would be a handbook for the haunted.
There’d be blood-red, then, for the motorways
With cities in their web like scarlet spiders,
But over here, in delicate flint-greys,
High on the downs pure Neolithic time
In chalky hollows, lingering like rime.
For furthest back, before the glaciers,
I’d let sloe-purple paint the night of caves.
My Roman ghosts would rise in blues and ochres
And Bronze Age russet glint about old graves.
How lovingly I’d chart one valley’s scene
In Saxon gold and fresh mediaeval green.
But there’s no school for time’s cartographers
And any skill of mine to mark and keep
I’d lavish on the contours of the living.
It’s only sometimes, at the edge of sleep,
I watch imagined colours pulse and fade.
How beautiful, the maps I never made.
Like stars, or swarming bees, or flocks of birds,
We think them hardly countable, our words.
Yet fifty thousand’s all we use, it seems,
For truth and lies, reality and dreams.
Which puzzles me. The world’s more things than that.
Do languages grow lean as lives grow fat?
Is so much absent from our brains and eyes?
What’s lost, I say, when we economize?
There’s too much difference we make the same.
All poets love the miracle of name
Yet mourn exactitudes they cannot state:
The single noun that might denominate
Their moods of quietness like falling snow,
Or yearn for lexicons they cannot know:
The speech of eagles, what the dolphins sing,
The glossolalia of leaves in spring…
Nothing, we dream, could bring us to content
But fifty million words for what we meant,
To fit whatever happened like a glove,
Redeeming lost pluralities of love,
Until we wake to truth, and see again
Unharvested, like leagues of sunset grain,
Outnumbering all stars and bees and birds,
The matchless universe beyond our words.
Our seconds rain like shells of lime
To build great thicknesses of time:
We watch the secret moments fall
Anonymous beyond recall,
Since who will look for you and me
In those white beds of history?
But if they do, with prying pen
When all our now has turned to then,
Let them not think, because they find
Some particle we left behind,
They know the vanished sea above
That was our salt and sunlit love.
These words I leave for them to learn
Like lily’s stem or print of fern
Are but our shadow in the stone
And all the rest is ours alone.
Then what a world of touch and talk
Shall lie compacted into chalk.
All right, dear, I’ll not risk bad dreams again
For our small daughter, singing her to sleep
With my sad ballads. Now Sir Patrick Spens
Can stay dry-shod; Queen Jane shall not cry out
For Good King Henry in her agony;
The channering worm shall chide no more; fair Janet
Must leave her true-love to the elf-queen’s keeping,
And Arlen’s wife will absolutely not
Be pinned right through the heart against the wall.
Henceforth, as you request, I shall confine myself,
Like any normal dad, to nursery rhymes:
Strange egg-shaped characters will smash themselves
Irreparably; ill-housed, harassed mothers
Whip hungry children; babies fall from trees;
Mice shall be maimed; sheep lost; arachnophobes
Fare badly; innocent domestics suffer
Sudden nasectomies, and at the end
We shall dance rosy-faced in a ring and drop dead with the plague.
In either case, outside the small lit bedroom
The glass shall weep with rain, the winds be howling
Their old, uncensorable savageries.
But you are right, of course: we should choose well
What songs we sing, to lull them for a while.
From the train at dawn, on ploughland, frost
Blue-white in the shadow of a wood.
Oh, you again, of all moods soonest lost
And most elusive and least understood.
What should I call you? Vision? Empathy?
Elation’s tunnel? Worm-hole of rejoicing?
Some bliss of childhood, reasonless and free,
The secret microcosms… What a thing
To have no name for, yet to live for, these
Curious contentments under all,
These moments of a planet: weathers, trees –
What dreams, what intimations, fern-seed small,
Are buried in my days, that I must find,
And recognise, and lose, and leave behind?
A little while, to climb the ridge again:
The body flowing, smooth, on reels of silk;
Wicks of cotton-grass in winter sun
Luminous; red moss; the soil’s black butter
Salted with white sand.
A little while
To see through wind-gapped mist the fields below
Gleam like ocean shoals, the lake a spearhead
Barbed and tanged with light.
A little while
To lie back under white sky; hooded, sleep;
Wake from warm throb to the kiss of snow
And come down-mountain, careless, like a rock-fall.
To say: where does it go?
Beyond the edge of hearing curlews cry.
The pools, wind-shivered, wait for others now.
What is there here to mourn?
Your song is in the silence.
Your stone is on the cairn.
I have known those who were kindly, not because
They had anything to gain, or thought they had,
Not even, it seemed, from a consciousness of virtue
Or principle of faith; one might have said
Such was their way, from an overflow of gladness
Or because the innocent heart keeps open house
Scorning defence, but anyway, so it was.
I have thought of fairy-stories: how they teach us,
Against all reason, that kindnesses return,
That when the king’s son seeks the giant’s daughter
What wins the quest is the irrelevant rescue
Of certain wayside ants, who later come
To do the task that he cannot, and gather
The seed the giant has scattered, each last grain.
And I have wondered what part I might play in this,
Knowing myself a grown man, middling hard,
Watchful of my defences, a dour accountant,
Weighing and balancing. And I have thought
That if nothing else I could be one of those
That gather and give back: the lame ant, maybe,
Who brings the last seed in before the nightfall.
The corn-ghost walks at twilight with yellow hair.
In the wood are watching faces, made of leaves.
Set cream for the boggart, silver for the elves.
Beware the black dog on the road, beware
The green-toothed hag of the pond, devourer of men –
So, in an old lost darkness once, we wove
Tales like the firelight, born of fearful love:
A shifting, shadowy propitiation
Of unknown things, the world’s fierce otherness,
A lessening of mortal loneliness.
For man is lonely, but the credulous
Have company: fish sing to them from streams,
Birds counsel them, to them the Elf-Queen comes
In her skirt of grass-green silk; it is they who pass,
Bearing their fern-seed, into the fairy hill
For the one night that is seven years beyond.
The feather-cloak is given to the earthbound
And the magic beans are destined for the simple
Who trade their one possession, yet will see
The morning garden green with mystery.
But this was long ago: the world’s great childhood
Is over now: those shadows love and fear
Are back within us, where they always were.
They served us well, the goblins of the wood,
The talking wolf, the witch’s house of bone,
Taming our night with names, while flowers sprang
Where beauty walked, when the old tales were young.
Now they are done, and we are back alone
On the cold hill, with one true tale to weave
That we shall answer for, and must believe.
Fourteen years ago this spring I saw
On a windy day when the white of cherry-blossom
Startled against grey cloud, at the edge of the wood
Where hornbeams grow, a flock of hawfinches
Bold, many-coloured: a gang of swaggering pirates
They dropped from the trees’ high rigging with cutlass-bright bills
Strutting the leaf-strewn deck; I watched and they
Allowed it: are we ever so honoured as by
Such pure indifference?
I have been back
To the wood each spring, but they have never returned.
Life is short for most things: comets, rainbows,
A fall of moonlit snow; one can only be grateful
For the rare conjunctions, for the accidentals
And grace-notes of existence; can only listen
For the once heard, though never heard again.
I’ll tell you this, the good old days were cold.
November through to March, our fire was lit
Mid-afternoon, burned up to warmth by evening
When you could get at it for drying clothes
And when it hadn’t been put out by falls
Of soot or snow, or else my father burning
Shovelfuls of frozen nutty slack
Scraped from the backyard bunker, or wet logs.
The wind would moan and rattle in the hall.
Doing my homework, six feet from the fire,
I’d freeze on one side, scorch upon the other
Like one of Dante’s sinners. Sunday night
Was bath-night; being youngest, I came last
To tepid greasy water heated up
With kettles, while our ancient oil-stove fluttered
Moth-wings of warmth against the icy air.
Going to bed, you shivered for ten minutes
In crackling sheets, curled up your feet away
From arctic nether regions, tried again
And then it came, a warmth at last, like none
A coddled generation can imagine,
A Stone Age bliss, a blood-heat; so you slept,
Waking to winter harvest: sheaves of frost
Heraldic, radiant, on every pane.
‘If you could just keep going in a straight line’ –
Said my father, innocent of Einstein,
As we walked home one night of winter stars –
‘You’d come at last to somewhere where there was
Nothing at all. I mean, there has to be
A last star, and what then?’ This troubled me.
That night in bed I travelled in my mind
Through stars that whirled like snowflakes in the wind
Until I found, beyond one last faint glow,
A blank, like morning fog outside my window.
I woke and cried, but when my father came
To ask what ailed me, was it some old dream,
Sobbed ‘Nothing!’, so was left to sleep again
Like the blind Cyclops in his cave of pain.
Later I learned: my father had it wrong:
All lines bend back at last, however long.
There is no end to the great blizzard of light
I’d like to tell him now, and so I might
Had he not journeyed on, to somewhere far
Beyond all words of mine, and any star.
What was it like, retiring? It was like
Stepping off a main road suddenly,
Leaving behind the haze of oil and dirt,
The rush and suck of cars, and finding yourself
Back in some half-remembered country lane
Leading unhurriedly up into hills.
You let the healing quietness enfold you.
So little traffic here, the strip you tread
Is velveted with moss, the brush of grass
Caresses you. Slowly the names come back:
Teasel, tall mullein, toadflax, surfacing
From days so deep you thought them lost forever.
It does not seem to matter overmuch
That in all probability this lane leads nowhere:
That sooner or later there will be no farm
In the hidden fold of the hill, no dung-starred gateway,
That the grass-grown tarmac will peter out altogether
In a path that is lost in the deepening shadow of trees.
For now at least it seems enough to walk
As in some end of summer afternoon,
The harvest done, the sky milky with cirrus,
Rooks feeding in the fields – enough to heal
From labour’s long irrelevance; perhaps
From servitude set free, at last to serve.
Just an RTFM, support would say,
Putting the phone down, fifty times a day,
On customers who simply would not look
At clear instructions in a printed book
So got themselves in some unholy mess.
It stood for ‘Read The Manual’, more or less…
Why did they find it difficult, we sighed,
To do their bit, when we had really tried,
Or so we claimed, to render things as plain
As anything can be from brain to brain.
Of course, the customer is right: he pays.
Yet shouldn’t poets too have such a phrase
For readers who’ll do anything but read
The words set out in front of them, who need
Critics, paraphrases, exegeses,
Even, God help us, academic theses?
I’m sympathetic, almost on their side:
I know it’s hard, having no place to hide.
But that’s the way it is, just you and me.
So give up now. Or else, RTFP.