Portrait of my grandparents

 

Impeccably dressed in Sunday best,

They’re quite the pair: him tall and goofy,

A string-bean Swede, her short and svelte,

With farm-girl glamour. Back from chapel

Or off somewhere flash, each wear

The dreamy gaze of the young

 

And in love. Sun-soaked drives

Down Cheshire’s blossoming lanes:  

Car blazed to a sun-streaked blur -

Past milking fields, trees shedding

A confetti cascade. A spring

Uncoiling into endless summer.

 

Or perhaps no further than this garden.

The evergreen place this portrait depicts,

As something vague slowly resolved

Into something indelibly real:

Like an old forgotten photograph,

The lives they'd pictured differently.

 

All that a camera cannot disclose:

Sun essaying its lustre from the clouds

While they held their smiling pose,

Footprints left in the deep grass

As they walked toward the house

In cahoots, holding the other close.

At Laugharne

 

At Laugharne summer returned.

Fine weather for a pilgrimage:

This being Dylan Thomas Town,

The place where he lived, worked,

And should have died, not on that trip

To New York, where 'eighteen straight'

And misdiagnosis did for him.

His death a product of his fame,

His fame a product of his death.

 

His family brought him home.

He’s buried here, with Caitlin, under some

Sore-thumb, cruciform tombstone

At St Martin’s cemetery: a brilliant white cross

Among the bible-black rows of dearly-departed.

 

We retraced Thomas’ October steps,

Until heavy weather closed in on us;

Ate a Welsh tea of scones and jam

And cheese. Fed our son, carried him

In a loose sling, as he murmured

And snored, wreathed in gentle night;

 

Saw The Boathouse where Thomas wrote

Looking across the Taf, a broad expanse

Of table-flat water, fringed by hills,

Where palavers of birds gave breath

To his perception, his poetry;

 

The writing shed with cluttered desk,

Shelves bearing a jumble of books,

Portraits and notes, seldom lit stove,

Grey jacked draped over a chair:

A trace of his capacious form.

 

VIEW BUGGER ALL PHOTOGRAPHY SERIES

The Horses

 

Genealogy lesson:

Ticking projector

Flickering light

On a plastic screen

 

Pulsing a prosthetic

Heartbeat inherited

From the faces

Extant in the frame

 

Suburban arcadia:

Limned by long-lost

Aunts and uncles

Cradling cup and saucer

 

Beside the roses

My gran laughs

Under auburn hair

And horn-rims

 

With a rubber band

My grandad flings

A glider skyward

In doomed flight

 

Grandparents

Watch my mother

And infant uncle

Running in circles

 

Throwing bread

To horses – a mare

And foal – at grass

In a nearby paddock

 

My mother

Turns, breeze

Lifting a hair

From her face

 

She asks me

For something:

Her small voice

Lost to the air

The Stone Age

Our proprietorial boy brings home

Stones and sticks from the park.

 

Bits of grit, lumps of gravel,

Marble-sized pebbles, tiny rocks;

 

Indiscriminately selected twigs;

Branches, feathers, lichen, bark.

 

What will grow from this stony rubbish?

He cannot know or say, though each

 

Holds brief use, becomes a curate’s egg,

Growing the small, neglected stack

 

In the corner of our porch

Where leaves and cobwebs collect.

 

A broken nest. A stone age ruin.

A disinterred cairn. Relics

 

Of his untroubled realm:

Days without rules or doubt,

 

Cruelty or loss, where objects

Like words, do no harm.

Portrait of my uncle as a boy

In memory of Brian Bowker, 1955-65

 

He looks like nobody living now,

The lad in knitted sweater, 60s style.

Teeth too big for his boyish mouth,

Slight disastema in the bright smile

For mum and dad. Hair light brown.

Sunny disposition. Eyes that beguile.

 

A record of happy boyhood – the place

He stayed, shut away in a sideboard

Or drawer, without drama – softly erased

From our family's record. A secreted hoard

Of belongings give life back to his face.

His name no more than a whispered word,

 

A vacancy, the hollow centre around which

The circumference of a marriage slowly

Closed – while his parents had to watch

Nephews, grandchildren pass his age, grow

To be parents themselves. However much

They saw of him in them, they didn’t show

 

It, never mentioned his name, but buried

Their grief. Swallowed it. Kept their counsel.

Became the quiet couple a few worried

About, but gave their days to work, chapel

And one another – things they still had –

Seeing the family over Christmas. Travel

 

As escape from the fact of his existence:

How he laughed, how he sang, how he died.

The effect of some playground incident.

He fell, hit his head, and didn’t survive

The night. The prayers of his parents

Unanswered. The power of their faith denied.

 

He looks like nobody living now,

The lad in knitted sweater, 60s style.

Teeth too big for his boyish mouth,

Slight disastema in the bright smile

For mum and dad. Hair light brown.

 Sunny disposition. Eyes that beguile.

Two Water Glasses

After Chardin

 

I cook pasta

With steamed greens

 

A staple meal

For austere times

 

I eat quickly

You ruminatively

 

Until we finish

And sit in silence

 

You sigh

I hum

 

You change places

I stack the plates

 

Leaving behind

Our water glasses

 

Facing each other

On the table

 

In the low light

Of the dining room

 

One half full

One half empty

 

As if deep

In thought

 

We retire to bed

Read our books

 

A single glass

On each table

 

Slightly tepid

Filmed with dust

Sicilian Travelogue

 

To Michael O’Leary, with thanks

At 38,000 feet, the feat of our being
Shakes heaven and breaks the heart, 
Although this truly is hell. We could
As easily reach beyond the window, 
Our vantage, to brush and push apart
The woollen clouds, startle them
Like crowds of sheep. Such are
The ambitions of aviation. Seven a.m. 
Sunlight burns a candle in the cabin. 
Sunspots kaleidoscope as the aircraft
Banks and rolls. Outside, at touching
Distance, the mountains melt like chocolate, 
Toblerone pyramids smashed and crushed, 
Houses and factories pieces of scrabble, 
Like words we neglect to learn, languages
Our tongues distrust or will never need, 
An emptied bag of letters, postcodes, 
Addresses, all we cannot or will not read, 
Gather and know: the waking lives, 
The oncoming coast, the relief of land
Flattening to the promise of Sicily. 
And you, asleep at the edge of a
Turning world, resting from an over
Rehearsed performance. At this hour
I am unsure which moves me more: 
Your breath, rising to mist the pane, 
Or the faint visibility of our other
Air. Perhaps, they are the same.

 

 

Acqua Bambini

You hear them, then you
See them: Latin voices carry
Like birds chirping emergency
Amid the sparse trunks of trees. 
An Italian family approaches: 
Up front, two plump fathers
Purposefully pushing push- 
Chairs, the carted babies frog- 
Kicking their pink and freckled
Legs. Behind them, the mothers, 
Bringing nappy bags and happy
Memories in their hands: four
Toddlers, eight legs vying
To match the flip flopping fathers. 
The pool is empty (just two of
Hockney’s sunbathing boys, an
Elderly Dutch couple, and us). 
A pause before the storm, 
As the new arrivals bomb
Into the stillness, as a fistful of
Rolled rust-shell grenades, 
Short-fused, rough tongues
Flaming 'pronto'. The boys' 
Gulping 'mama' and 'papa' yelps
Like droplets to the 'yaya' thunder
Rumblings of the parents. The mothers
Fuss while the fathers pose. 
The boys are stripped to their speedos, 
Slathered with sunscreen, water- 
Wings screwed onto arms which
Squeak like party balloons. Condom
Bathing caps are uncurled, and
They charge toward the water, 
Spring from the edge, bob
On its cling-film surface. 
The warm elasticity of the pool
Wraps around them like a promise, 
A wet towel, or a second skin. 
They become skimmed stones, 
Skipping back into the hands
They spun from. Each one
Is wearing the same aquamarine
As the pool, the sea, the sky.

 

Rais Gerbi

The sky has no memory, it is
Free of identity, but we are not here
For answers, we are here to forget
How to remember. The sea is a
Silver fish, its muscular flatness
Ploughed under by mercurial ripples, 
Molten scales rising and dipping. 
There is another lesson in newness: 
The imprint of a past downpour
Vanishing, the thrashings of a hundred
Thousand summer swimmers
Survived by its oncoming autumn. 
Beyond the horizon, someone
Has lit a fire. Smoke lifts up
Like a hymn, and you recall the shepherd, 
The journey that brings you here, 
Your passage passport-approved, 
All continents access-authorized, 
Great Britain on the brink of being
No more than a forgery, the struts
And spires of its rising cities printed
Onto the book of you like a barcode, 
A tattoo, or a stain. False idols, tin
Gods, profit and loss a gathering
Imprimatur. All mornings
Should be like this.

 

The view from Pollina

You can say everything about
Somewhere, or you can say nothing. 
This peculiar town leaves us cold. 
Every door is closed. Cobbles and
Stairs lead only to more cobbles
And stairs, and an ancient coliseum
Brooding like an accusation. Limp
Clouds cling to the hills, an ill-fitting
Wig of bad weather. A fountain's
Triumph has almost run out, trickles
Its influenza into a dead goldfish
Bowl. A crude town, uglier than
A Sicilian nona and twice as chaste, 
The celebration of its younger self
Muted. Neither have aged well. 
It’s inglorious red-brick arches, helter
Skelter streets, uneven set stones
Sunk in the roads, as if you are
Treading on local faces. A veil
Of familiar drizzle feathers the view
Down to the grey beaches of the unblued
Med, its volcanic coastline like grit
Under the eyelid. Below our parapet, a farmer
Fetches his herd home, the bell's dull clonk
Guiding the sheep back to their slaughter. 
The sequences of prayers, gamblers
Curses and illicit exchanges harvest
The province's disowned currency. 
Honour thy neighbour, for the hills are alive
With the sound of murder. A cement mixer
Turns over its steady gruel in a litter- 
Strewn palazzo. Little changes here. 
Local habits work under the surface
Like a twitch, a catechism. Butcher's
Fingers prise skin from flesh, the baker
Slaps dough about like his wife. Hair
Under a lifted hat, the ring on a severed
Finger. The view from Pollina. 


Prego 

Into a paper bag the old woman puts
A bushel of basil, pomodoro tomatoes, 
A feathery lettuce and an old onion. 
I request 'dewy pesky' and she roots
Out two unbruised fuzzy bums, drops
Them into the bag. Next, a pick
Of rudely-purple plums, deftly plucked
Between thumb and forefinger. 
'Altro?' She asks. 'Grazie,' I say. 
'Prego,' she says, meaning 'please' or 'thank
You', and offers me the bag. I take it, 
And on the way out add to my basket
A bauble of mozzarella, salami, two
Bottles of vini rossi, and a ciabatta. 
Sadly, they have no little tubes of cannolli. 
At the till a commotion, the woman's daughter
Mid-argument, ignores me when I
'Grazie' so it inadvertently rhymes
With 'curtsey', and hand her my Euros. 
Under heavy-lidded eyes, and with
Pope John Paul watching on the wall, 
She slaps down the centimes and receipt
On the counter and carries on shouting, so
Feeling clever I say 'prego' meaning please
And thank you', but also 'don't mention it', 
So she shouts back 'stronzo mentecatto' 
Meaning she will never become her mother, 
As I step into the street, shopping bags
Pulling my shoulders down. 

 

Silvio

Took us everywhere that year:
Up the narrowing pass to drab Pollina
With a class of acne-faced, sullen
Sicilian kids, or down the coast
To Cefalu, along wave-walled
Beaches, he was always at the wheel.
Bending his rigid bus down
Impossibly winding routes, grazing
Crash barriers, easing onto the brakes
As the bus nosed over oblivion. He was
With us, resting a hard palm on the horn
And wafting his free hand. He knew
Our folly, two fish flopping fresh
From the tank. In turn we imagined the home
He returned to, after the last drop
Was done, opening the door to his wife,
The house without a child's trace,
Their chaste embrace, him squatting
On a stool to sip the soup her mother’s
Mother’s mother made. On the sofa
Slipping his loafers off, massaging the feet
That kept him out of the forces,
Danced him across the ballrooms of Milan and Paris,
While on the TV some Berlusconi stooge
Demanded his money for cheap lace lingerie
And plastic three piece suites.
We could not picture his frail mother
Expiring in the infermeria, her body
Like bagged tree-roots. His father in the earth
At fifty-five, and his elder brother lost
To cosa nostra omerta by thirty, Silvio
Was already older than both - did he think of them
As he inched his body, feet first,
Into a lukewarm bath, soaped himself,
Striped the blade across a cheek
Where skin readied itself to be remade
Pork-pink from white foam?
Then sliding under the bedsheet
Like an heirloom in a jeweller’s bag,
Eyes closed, mouth agape, waiting
For the dark to claim him? Did we make this up?
How he rose with the light, duty taking him
Back from his box room and sleeping wife
To the depot, his destinations. First stop Finale,
Another batch of sulking kids, then us,
Car-less, clue-less and incommunicado,
Stood at the stop, his toot and salute,
A slight, curious, incurious smile
On his tan face. I can see him now.



Umbrella City

It is stair-rodding on the roads of Palermo
So we step out of the rain into a department
Store to steal a piss in the toilets, and try on
One or two things. By the time we come out
The rain has hardened. A street protest goes by, 
Its banners washed white, voiding its demands, 
The crowd breaking up, whistles diminishing. 
In their pompous uniforms, the caribineri look
Restless, but cracking skulls would be pointless
On a day like this. From a shop window's safety
I admire their belt buckles, night sticks and gleaming
Gun butts, their damp blue epaulettes, Genoa- 
Forged camaraderie. What does it take to turn
Off compassion, I wonder, to be able to murder; 
Would I have the gumption, the acumen, 
The pure chutzpah to batter a pacifist in his
Or her bed, but then the moment passes, 
Like the carnival of politics but unlike the rain, 
Which hammers on to everyone’s horror. Only
The umbrella vendors are enjoying themselves
Making a decent fists of selling 1 Euro shop- 
Bought umbrellas for 10 Euros a pop to the tourists, 
Hurrying hither and thither like sherpas with herpes. 
After being asked for the hundredth time if I would
Like an umbrella, in my saturated combat shorts
And wet canvas shoes, and evident displeasure, 
I believe that I might indeed have what it takes
To break someone’s neck with my bare hands. 
I imagine it would be like wringing water from
A twisted tea towel into a washing up bowl. 
I don't test the theory. I am wearing impractical shoes, 
And Palermo is known for a law and order
Of a different form. Two days later we flew home
Like birds doomed to their coop, our umbrellas
Stowed in the hold, safe as old houses.

Study

 

That which separates student and scholar:
A lifetime of quibbling with the past,
and idiocy. Upbraiding those old ghosts,
a monkish warrior, the scholar wears

his empirical suit to guard against
nostalgia's desultory difference -
the past is not a foreign country, once
manners mattered not. Your senses

Too long buried in books, you'll pray
for sweet relief in the sweat and heat
of the physical as counter-weight
to this intolerable thought: the way

up and way down are not the same.
Shelves groan with unbidden names.

William Eggleston's Guide

"I am at war with the obvious."


I have seen banality like the pink blossom
of trees, toppling graves for Confederate generals,
the families of Tennessee and Mississippi,
the light of the Deep South, its heart of darkness.
I have framed men, women and children for
the crimes their fathers committed; to the culture
they inherited I bequeathed a quickened mortality,
like a kick in the gut from an eagle scout.
I showed a world of colour the Old Masters
never knew, uncovered the cruel majesty of objects:
cutlery, some kid’s tricycle, a burning barbecue;
the kerb-side girl with get-lost eyes wearing a navy dress.
I walked out to where colour split the world
and democratized the right to see. I bought voters,
their gas ovens, garage walls, green bathrooms,
I resurrected the south’s crumbling plantations, filled
for the tan dog a muddy puddle for drinking,
made of white bottles disparate clouds. I created
a new way to speak plainly that needed no words.
Just don’t ask me why I did it. I did it. That's enough.

The Day Michael Died

 

After Frank O'Hara


It is 4.40 in New York a Thursday
Five days before my 30th birthday, yes
It is 2009 and I am looking for America
Because I landed on the 11.15 to Kennedy
at 3.15 and then went straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

We walk up the muggy street Broadway
just starting to boogie in the brilliant sun
and have a hamburger and beer and begin
taking pictures to record what the people
in New York are wearing these days

And as I bob up Broadway
a mobile beat-box buzzes by
hissing synths and a lisping voice
denying the facts of an illicit affair
we stick to our route New York
beginning to shine now cornucopia
of neon coating Times Square
crowd grown very thick I think
as I enter still snapping pictures
of the faces the craning heads
changing from wonder to dread in the flicker
of Fox News reporting 'King of Pop Dead
at 50' some crying others baffled
and tomorrow morning every commuter in the city
will carry a New York Post with

his face on it


and I'm sweating a lot by now and thinking of
being four years old and seeing for the first time
a street lighting up as he stepped along it
the boy who just stopped breathing

Armistice Day Assembly

 

An unseasonably warm autumn.

The sports hall heat stifling

As they march in, single file,

Form ranks to Nimrod’s strings.

 

A thousand boys, regiment -strength,

Ordered in yearly battalions.

The scrupulous gaze of the Headmaster,

The green blazers with a hint of khaki.

 

As Elgar fades, the Head recites

An address two weeks’ in the planning –  

Rousing oratory: the Glorious Dead,

The trenches, the shell-holes, the sacrifice,

 

The serious stuff of national grief.  

Swaying in their scuffed brogues,

The ranks smother their yawns.

Dry coughs puncture the elegy.

 

Unseen, one lad suddenly falls:

They heard the dull, sullen thump

Of cranium meeting concrete, then

No more. Sandbag-still he iies,

 

Until two teachers bear him out.

The Head continues, raising his voice

To drown out the groans of another

Boy, dropped stone dead, prone

 

At base of his lectern. He wavers

But doesn't falter as wave upon

Wave falls, gasping for life, holes

Torn in the serried ranks. Still on

 

He goes, boys as threshed corn

Toppling around him. Reaching

His rhetorical close (there remain

Barely enough boys for a First XI)

 

The borrowed clothes: “Age shall not

Weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning

We will remember them. Amen.”

 

Blinking profoundly, he turned

And strode from the hall,  

Out into the untroubled light

Of a clear November morning.

Full Term

 

Hangover from yesteryear’s lesser days:
Rain, like wrapping paper, falls in sheets.

This house, shrouded in New Year gloom,
Was a cradle of ebullient Yuletide light;

Now the tree is back in its box, the wreath
Resting in peace in the wheelie bin.

Our firstborn has decimated Duplo empires.
We’ve barely dented the Roses tin,

A snowball of Christmas cake remains.
The nights are drawing out again. On the table, 

An abstraction scrawled by the two-year-old,
Distraction from his rival's imminent arrival.

Our kitchen clocks slip out of synch.
The boiler clicks off and on at once,

As if releasing an uncertain breath,
Or recalling something of significance.

Lightning Storm

 

Lying in bed, watching

A lightning storm

Crash among cloud.

 

Electric night

Flashed filaments,

Fusing solid air.

 

The flicker-crackle,

Of black static:

Kinetic noise

 

Echoing riverwards.

Hesitant rain

Rushing for the sea.

 

A moth bothering

The bedside light

As I lie prone,

 

Stone-like, naked,

Admiring nature's

Alchemical ire,

 

Supper thundering

In my stomach's

Echo-chamber..

The Girl in the Long Black Coat

 

August and you're still in it,
black as black, your hair
pony-slick, a cape draped
over the nape of your neck.

Onto the train, fighting
your way on and fighting
your way off, you always
have to be first. I want

to take you to one side,
to tell you everything I know.
You know I know nothing.
Undertaker sullen, solemn

as a crow, unyielding
to this needling world, you
wish for winter, dress for
December, yearn for despair.

I Cannot Stand Tears

 

After Charles Bukowski


The first at the station:
her Oyster broken, a bosomy
attendant swiped her through,
bloom of sorrow blossoming
just below her fringe.

The second on a Friday,
third week of March,
Piccadilly Circus, near the Windmill,
where they'd opened a new
hole in the world, I saw
her skirt the building blindly,
tissue twisted in her hand,
face a waterfall of frustration.

Lastly in SW1, St Patrick's Day,
the blond browbeaten moll
of some atypical drunken
brute, enfeebled by drink
and failing affection, reason
and love as foreign as France.

And I cannot stand tears,
so I hasten to the Tube,
furling my umbrella as I go.

The bastards had ruined
my landscape.

The Idiot Flies

 

Their circling is a kind of pain, 
circulating about the room.
The idiot flies are back again,

triangulating their campaign
to quit the space they assume.
Their circling is a kind of pain,

movement morbid and mundane,
weaving at an invisible loom. 
The idiot flies are back again.

Held by light or trapped by rain –
all nature abhors a vacuum –
their circling is a kind of pain 

of ceaseless labour, in vain
repeated, reprised, resumed.
The idiot flies are back again,

etching the signals of the brain,
scoring a moment's plaintive doom.
Their circling is a kind of pain.
The idiot flies are back again.

Deeside

 

Fourteen years flash by in an eye-flicker.

Sweet little Ballater, this regal town

With its quaint, Beeching-ed former station,

Corner confectioner, the Balmoral Tavern,

Lochnagar Indian, two Co-ops, one Queen.

Still the same. Still different. Still home.

No flag atop the Balmoral pole this week,

Just a smattering of snow to help to keep

The skiers and lifties up at Glenshee.

Fourteen years ago you scrambled up

A hillside, young poet with an old soul,

Average mind, lungs full of hash smoke,

Trying to write, trying to know something

Of life: “the river shivers like a silver shoal,

A strip of foil unravelled.” The little distance

You’ve travelled. Returning with two sons,

A wife, your parents: older, slower, more

Mortal. Their bequest, this regal town,

These sterile fields, ancient woods,

Mountains and valleys echoing with

The sound of their unspoken thoughts.

Dores Inn Revisited

 

The first time we came here,

Sans enfants, we were the children

Modishly trying to be grown up.

 

A thank you meal for your parents:

Teacherly in mood, quietly composed,

Gentle-voiced, modest-meaned.

 

I barely knew them. Nothing was certain,

Our offspring no more than an inkling,

A light blinking on broken water.

 

Now a taste of freedom, time regained.

Just a couple of anonymous covers

Dining alongside resident and tourist:

 

A long line of Germans chewing steak,

Mute Scots wi’ nary an aye nor a nay,

Flustered waiter fussing over the wine.

 

After we ate, a six-piece folk-band

Struck up their husky tune. We snuck out,

Drink in hand, to watch the bats flicker

 

Over the loch into the watery night.

You said you wanted me to taste

Of cigarettes. To my regret we had none

 

To savour, that other flavour predating us.

So instead to home, where we swiftly fell

Into the arms of sleep: toddlers each.

Findhorn

 

A hiking boot delivered by the sea:

Beached and kippered, almost box new.

Then a shed, sodden, grey hoodie -                                              

Pockets ripped out - and hidden from view

 

By sea grass a woman's silver watch,

Circumference fixed to a slim carpus;

Behind the brine-filmed face, the twitch

Of a hand moving beneath the glass.

 

Then beyond the dunes the rusting car,

Keyed ignition waiting for the ghost

Of the driver to return, put it in gear,

Depart the spot she sought to stay lost.