Friday, August 03, 2012


This is a long poem taken from my debut collection The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman (first published by Bloodaxe in 1997, now available in a revised form on Kindle as Disreputable). I published substantial extracts from Canzoni on the blog in May 2008. But since it's now 2012 and I probably have a wider readership now, it seems fair to post it up again for another outing.

Canzoni does have an explanatory preamble, but I'd prefer the poem to stand alone without going into it. So I shall not bother to comment on its inspiration, except to say that the "Inquisition" scene in the middle has an unfortunate and highly unsuccessful Oxford interview at Magdalen College at its heart. If you think I'm difficult in my mid-forties, imagine me at age seventeen.

I'm rather glad I outgrew this type of self-indulgent posturing (or hope I did) and the knowing obscure references which feel rather silly at this distance in time. It has some good things in it though, so it's worth a nod.


Your image blurs
in a fingerprint of rain,

shark’s-eye twitching the lens
like a landed fish
as you gather yourself.

This is your funeral.
You cannot afford to be absent.


Where the world was, there is a hole.
At the bottom, a rotten box
opens steel hinges.

The church stiffens
into the future, beckoning.

The goddess bends over the pram
in a wave of bright light and eucalyptus.
Her skin has the look of scouring pads.
She is angry, then diffident.

When she goes,
she leaves something with me –
so tiny I could tuck it under my fingernail
and not notice –
but it shines, it sparkles!

It turns in the wind like a seed
hungry for soil, then sits all summer
under the red bell of the rhubarb.

I hear it pressing
cool dark clay
with its arm stumps.


This coal bunker is so drab
it is almost innocuous;

inhabiting the air like a virus,
its unseen spores drift inwards.

This photograph
must have been taken in ’68 –

he came out with a sledgehammer
not long after

and reduced it to rubble –
but I remember the smell, the gritty feel of it.

Coal dust is like pollen –
I carried it around in my lungs

summer after summer,
a black hive.


It was always raining
and the bookcase was always full.

After the rug ended,
before the skirting board began,

your dark spine shone like skin
under my fingers.

You were a shadow
on an x-ray,
growing and deforming.

They should have had you removed
but you were part of me –
a sucker, coming out of the soil
where the graft root was accidentally buried.

Your words hatch
white clutch-eggs in my larynx
twenty years on,

where the dull sheen of pearls
first gleamed under my palate.


This is no mosquito.
The lump is already swelling and purpling
like the eyesockets of an aborted head.

It stinks of old cats, fishbones, dustbin lids.

It has no name,
so reluctantly I give it yours –
unwanted, it’s been skulking about for years
and demands purpose.

I will give birth to a wolf bite.


The car ticks over,
the soft green pit pit pit
of rain on the windscreen.

It is three minutes to twelve.

When the lightning comes,
it is a steel pin
in the throat of the morning,

holding noon from midnight
and one swift breath
from the other.

Afterwards, I shudder down the lane
like an old woman,

thirty seconds closer
to whatever took you.


This is not The Purple Rose of Cairo
where you will walk out of the screen,
a dea ex machina,

but the echo of an echo,
repeating myself
as I try to unwrangle

future from present,
present from past historic,

finding them all
on the same skein of wool
like runners from a strawberry,
budding intermittently.

There will be no
ice cream at the interval.

Down, down, the house lights
have all gone down,

leaving nothing but the waiting,
as I step outside my own skin

into the silver skin of history.


This room breathes
the dark stench of the Inquisition.
She does not have the answers to your questions.

Will you stretch her on the rack?
Is she your next victim?

A star swivels
above the one glinting eye
of the brickwork, aching
to be opened and examined.

Milk-white, it tenses and folds.
She is not a cat. She will not drink it.
It stands for insanity, knowledge.

Your questions beat about her head
like sisters, their blood is on her fingers.


God, for a heart rent like a veil –

flayed on an anvil
like the skin of a walrus –

ripped, beaten so thin
its veins, its valves,
the bright gush of aorta,
wither to sun-dried red chillies.


Her black-hole-eye collapses
in on itself. The debris
thickens and follows.

Tell me, old man,
what was it like
to sleep with the goddess,

to taste her death,
the retreat of it?

Your mind is a morgue.

Images lie tagged on the tables,
smiling postmortem,
the flash of a shutter.

For this sad pilgrimage to end,
the beast herself

must rise and walk,
bearing her slab
like a standard before her.


There is a bullet
lodged in your gullet,

a small shining oblong
with the voice
and cry of a woman.

The hare, the grouse,
the blood-flecked rabbit,
dance on your rain gibbet,
creaking their shut eyes.

The sea walks tall
in the distance,
a whisper of silver
past the high grasses

where the moon hangs
like a crude symbol
over a rough cot.

There is no way
to ward off this evil.

You will lie face-down
for centuries,
picking out her features:
stones from mud.


I step back,
listening to where the ripples
found me,

the still drop of a stone
into dark water,
the endless concentric circles.

After the stone’s entry,
the waters heal themselves
like lips closing on silence.

From the depths,
the world comes back
as a blue shadow,

seen through the shallow eye
of a stone.


Worm wriggles
inside his fur pouch, stretching.

The animal died last month.

His mouth is squeaking
the tin whistle
of its teeth, restlessly.

Then the wind shifts.
His damp striations rise
and coil.

Someone has hung someone else
out to dry.


The clock calls in the hall
with its first hand, striking.

She says something,
but the crack of your heart
is too loud to hear it.

Through the dark room,
you see the glint of her breath
as she turns into the pillow.

She knows. She knows.

The sheets pull like dust-jackets
into your hand.


Harnessed to the air,
she is anathema –

no birds touch her.

The stinging flail
of the sun catches her ankle.

She is anchored
to a heat-source, incandescent.

Her marigold mouth
and shrivels –

is this how death feels? –

her hair withers
like a field of burnt bracken.

The thrush
starts from the thicket
as she arches, hollow candle,
from one form to another.

The lawn leaves a charred circle
where her feet fall.


Black ash
under the broad sweep of an oak.

Starlings sift
through its fingers.

She imagined herself violent,
failing to see how the line breaks
at the meridian,

leaving her stranded, unalterable.

Too far inland for the sea,
crashing between houses, gleaming
like the blunt edge of a sickle –

where a boat might cross and recross,
telling its history –

but still now as the centre,
silent, irreproachable.

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