Thursday, 11 December 2014

Of feathers beneath the moon

When I'm not a poet, I'm an ecologist, and can be found surveying and/or writing about wildlife - usually insects, but sometimes larger creatures. This poem is about working on the Arne Penninsula in Dorset.

Mapping nightjars

Daytime apes
out of time and place,
we walk the dark heather
beyond terse ‘No public access’ signs
on every gate and fifty feet of fence,
skirting regimented blocks of pines,
shuffling through sand and lichen
to listen for the chirr of males,
triangulating with ears and eyes and GPS.
Between calls, we pencil
rough boundaries by torchlight,
scrambling colonialists
interpreting territorial extent
from snapshots and soundbites
of reproductive intent.
A few make flapping silhouettes
against the last glimmer
or perch to survey us in turn
while silent females drop to the ground,
invisible, rising strident when we pass
too near a hidden nest,
wing-flashes circling low overhead
drawing us away from precious eggs.
Our allocated square kilometre complete,
we depart and night reclaims the space.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Post Black Friday feelings

When the sad sight of people fighting over cheap TVs brings on thoughts of shallow incompleteness...

The half-people

They hang dead-still,
split along their length
like pickled sheep and sharks,
each a Jekyll and Formaldehyde character
baring its innermost parts
for a sip of elixir,
a secret draught,
only half have hearts.

Awakening to beckon
at the faintest taste of gold,
bisected tongues stroke teeth
in mouths that can never close,
minds a single hemisphere
behind a lonely orb
that can not perceive depth.
And so they float,
fearing only ink,
the concentrated sepia of knowing
that dissolves their walls,
breaks apart their hive of
stacked and vinegary tanks,
blacks them out like blitz-curtains
so they can attract
no more of the living.

Friday, 21 November 2014

All aboard

After several weeks of writing on some fairly heavy topics (WW1 & macroeconomics in particular), here's a little bit of dirty doggerel about the introduction of a bus run on biogas from human waste and thrown-away food, a short and silly piece about the value of waste which I used as light relief to finish last night's Show Me The Money exhibition-related set.

Poo bus

Humanure and dustbinned food,
fermented dung replacing crude,
unwanted BOGOF don’t just bin it,
join the waste race, better, win it.

Come passengers, roll up investors,
see the new bio-digester,
fed with passed organic crap,
pumps out methane, sewage gas.

Let lorries, coaches, vans and cars,
even speedboats run on farts,
CH4 in every vehicle,
Fuel of the people, faecal,

Our motions give its motive power,
use the rest to grow rose-flowers,
be proud to flush a well-formed do,
and hop aboard the Number Two.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembrance when there's no-one to remember

Last night I performed a sequence of new First World War poems as part of Eastleigh Museum's WWI centenary exhibition. Whatever your feelings about the centenary events and remembrance, for many people it is a deeply emotional issue. So, when I was asked to write on this subject I knew it would be difficult, not because of my own feelings, but because (a) the audience was likely to care what I did in a way that probably isn't usually the case, (b) it would be a 'traditional' audience - not what I'm used to, and (c) it risked breaking one of the golden rules, namely 'write what you know about'. I was fairly confident I could take care with (a) and (b) - there are times to seriously challenge an audience, but this was never going to be one of them, so 'contemporary but respectful' was the tone to aim for. However, (c) was tricky. I don't come from a military family, my historical period of choice is early medieval, and 'the horrors of war' were covered by the poets who were actually there - Wilfred Owen and so on - and I have no urge to compete with them! However, after a bit (well, a lot) of thought I came up with the idea of everything being second-hand as no-one who experienced WWI is still alive. Everything we know is from books, recordings, film, photographs, eye-witness accounts, museum artifacts etc. This became the underlying concept for my writing and, even though my set was book-ended by Geoff from the Chameleon Theatre Company reciting a selection of well-known poems of the time (yes, those I didn't want to compete with), the positive reception suggests it worked and I'm happy with the way the set turned out. So, here is the opening poem from my set - I hope you enjoy it.


What is left?
Now all the eye-witnesses have gone
everything is second, third, fourth hand
and so on. Black-and-white photos,
grainy stills from rare films,
clips of aerial reconnaissance
or TV documentaries,
interviews made just in time,
books and files of history and opinion
filling shelf-miles,
terabytes of networked drives,
and artefacts preserved behind museum glass.
Post-bombardment celluloid from Paaschendale,
Photoshopped and mashed up with
War of the Worlds tripods
ignites a YouTube debate about
what is dissing or respectful.
For this is ancient history to most,
something abstracted
on interactive whiteboards,
as homework,
in GCSE revision notes
and weekend battle re-enactments.
The era of slow massed ranks
encouraged by threats
and prods of officers’ revolvers
has passed unmourned
along with Haig and Joffre;
no more suicidal nods
over-the-top tugs
of a thousand, million forelocks,
for ‘our betters’ are passé,
and the post-traumatic
casualties of nerves and mind
have at least been pardoned, still
the idea of some sort of heroism lingers,
the echo of, for good or ill,
our martial ancestry,
all those who chose to fight and fall,
and as poppies fade at last from red to white,
what is left?
Remembrance, not memory, is all.

Monday, 27 October 2014

First thoughts, second part

I spent yesterday in a workshop exploring 'First Thoughts' i.e. Ginsberg's idea that the first thought is the best thought. So, there was a series of exercises and prompts to write poems very quickly - in 5 to 10 minutes generally - to ensure that there wasn't time to revisit the first thought and change it to the second, third fourth and so on. It was a follow-on from a previous workshop on the same topic, and like that one produced a number of genuinely outstanding pieces.

I'm working on a couple of ideas that sprung from the event, and here's one that I produced from the prompt 're-use a line from Long Days by Jean Follain' - I used "next to the worn-out animals" and the idea came from a recent online news story.

In Gaza zoo

In Gaza zoo,
the are no zebras;
the occupiers’ edicts
forbid the import of exotic species
and slowly, the exhibits
dwindle to taxidermy.
But even in Palestine,
kids know what should be on display;
to comply, keepers paint stripes on white donkeys
and children ride upon their backs,
a wire-fenced pleasure-beach,
parading until,
as the gates clang shut,
feral cats emerge
to yawn and stretch
next to the worn-out animals.

I'm quite happy with the story and imagery here, though I may rework it. On other occasions, inspiration let me no further than 'short and silly' as here, written in response to the prompt 'write a poem structured like one of the handouts' - I went with William Carlos Williams' As the Cat (not least because it's short and it was near the end of the day, but also I'm a cat-fan and enjoy sparse poetical structures once in a while). Enjoy... and if you fancy attending a workshop and can get to Southampton or Bournemouth, this is the place to look.

As the man

As Pavlov
rang his bell
and measured

canine salivation
the cat watched

pawing at
its collar-jingle
so the man

on hearing now
lifts his leg
and washes.