Shigeru’s Cave

i.

When Shigeru was twelve, he found a cave
no one else had explored. The other boys
avoided that part of the wood. Their base
bordered the hillside near a soldier’s grave
now used as a bookmark for civic grief
but Shigeru went on deeper forays
into the forest. He staged one man plays
under the teeming emptiness. He tried to carve
murals in loneliness and what was slight
became whole, wider than the cave itself.
Even the dust made shadows when he lit
an oil lamp and ghosts rose to a swarm.
Their dreams were parables in low relief,
unknowable but easy to transform.

ii.

Shigeru blew out the flame and black verbs
gathered the unlit part of their burden,
climbing like fireworks with each blink, hidden
like smoke wrapped in a darker sky. Suburbs
called him from beyond the wood, offering bribes
of long stillness when the clearing was done.
A blind thief arrived. He made his den
out of insults, heartbeats and rubies.
He polished their blood-beauty like you would shoes,
counting them over decades, relieved
to find company in his own echoes.
For all the thief’s effort his only prize
was a hundred smooth-dull stones. Shigeru breathed
from the forest, smiled and opened his eyes.

iii.

The silence became floodwater, so bright
it glittered between branches yet so dense
it pulled the cave inside out and blindness,
regrets and blessings tumbled free. Black roots
erupted from the ground. Bare branches wrote
poetry in their scrawl against a wilderness
where swallows flew. Shigeru watched them dance.
Small deafenings and tensions came apart
as he stepped into a larger, deeper cave.
Meandering home and late for his tea,
a schoolboy paused for a minute and gave
his hands to the slow part of the river
to feel its cool alignment with the sea;
a darting, unexpected scale; quicksilver.

 

‘Shigeru’s Cave’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Live Canon Poetry Competition and appears in the competition anthology, available from Amazon. It was inspired by the formative experiences of Nintendo game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto.

The Roses of Heliogabalus

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-TademaThe Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

The Roses of Heliogabalus

We were talking about art
and taking wine with our
sensuous king when a slave
released the canopy and petals –
their blush-making softness,
their deafening of the skin –
continued falling through us.
And when the late sun reddened,
guards turned the litter
over itself continually
until the ground was bruised
and whether they spoke of it
or patrolled their memories,
or held themselves alert
or felt their way to excuses
that bore their tentative hurt,
I cannot say, except that
these men walked a quiet palace
where all those able had
given themselves to love.

 

 

 

Shigeru’s Cave shortlisted for Live Canon 2014

Poetry news! ‘Shigeru’s Cave’ has been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Competition. It’s a series of three Italian sonnets imagining one of the fathers of modern gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a kind of schoolboy hermit exploring Platonic territories. Miyamoto is (of course) the creator of the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda games. Much has been made of his formative, solitary childhood playing in woods, caves and streams in the hills behind his family’s suburban home. Shigeru himself suggests a mysterious link between these early experiences of nature and the playful, tactile exploration that characterises his game design. The poem was inspired by this article in The New Yorker.

Isabel’s Curious Machine

Williams Carlos Williams said that a poem is a machine made out of words. That’s a fitting way to describe Isabel Rogers’ poem ‘John’s Curious Machines': a very efficient, inspired machine designed to evoke John Harrison’s ingenious marine chronometers. These highly precise clocks kept time even in rough, varied weather at sea, making it possible for a ship’s navigator to determine its longitude — saving many lives. Isabel’s poem recently won the Cardiff International Poetry Competition and she was one of the Live Canon Poetry Comp. shortlistees for the past two years. You can read ‘John’s Curious Machines’ on the CIPC website. She’s also written a guest blog for Royal Museums Greenwich about John Harrison and the Search for Longitude.

The St. Ives to Zennor Coast Path

I walked the coast path with Hugh today. Hugh is a writer and artist whose poems appeared in The Inner Sea. It started foggy and cool but by midday the morning haze had retreated to the horizon. We saw a seal surface to watch the waves rustle through the carracks, and a stonechat flitting and chirping about the rocks. It’s a walk that means a lot to me, having walked it with good friends on a camping holiday, and my wife when we first came to St. Ives together. The scenery is spectacular. Headland after headland stretches into the Atlantic. We stood in the Trevalgan stone circle and guessed that two hundred generations may have passed since the stones were brought there. It’s a place that makes you feel very transient and all the while waves continue to roll into hidden coves and beaches. We discussed ideas for a follow up to The Inner Sea and finished in The Tinner’s Arms.

Don’t crawl before you can sit

Procrastination shouldn’t be such a dirty word. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing at a comfortable pace. Giant sequoias grow to nearly one hundred metres over thousands of years. The Mona Lisa took da Vinci twenty years to paint. In an ideal world, progress would be limited to that which we do when the mood takes us. The only rule of the miraculous school of poetry — of which Douglas Dunn described himself as a ‘fully paid up member’ — is that you write a poem only when you have a poem to write, and crucially, when you can no longer put it off.

My son gets frustrated because he can’t keep his head up and crawl over to me. He’s an accomplished sitter though, only toppling over every now and then when reaching for something. When he can crawl he’ll be frustrated that he can’t stand up without falling over, and sooner or later, that he can’t run a mile in under four minutes or solve quadratic equations or write a bestselling novel. At such times, we would all do well to remind ourselves that we are accomplished experts when it comes to sitting on our arses.

The Clay Body

A clay body, or corp criadhach, is an ancient Scottish curse. Once placed in a stream, the clay would disintegrate and with it the body of the victim whom it mimicked. Only by finding and preserving the clay body could the sufferer forestall the spell.

i.

Part of me loosens in a stream
where mountains tumble to the brook,
and the clear floodpath of a storm
encourages what’s left to break.

My body and the clay body
have each become the other’s muse,
rain-battered and anonymous.
Rheumatic, rhyming, our blood will dye

grey marsh-water. But the curse
pained me most when my family
patrolled its swollen mud-rivers.
My wife swam, breath-holding for a mile

with salmon and slim-finned trout.
She rose between dark-speckled parrs,
clothed in the river’s swill, and brought
three fish out. They were a fine prize

with angry markings on each head
but I was reminded by their dull
gaze, dashed by brick, that no clay doll
was tickled from the riverbed.

ii.

My daughter looked under the wheel
that drove the mill. Its rhythm
strung a harp with tendons and wool.
Workers there plucked a broken theme

but she walked the lake in winter,
dancing over an ice-skinned bruise
until she dropped through it to raise
a cursed doll from its delicate knit.

We waited three months for the thaw,
then she emerged: cold and caressed
by weeds and rushes. The miller saw
her waist-deep in a mirror, dressed

to her wrists in small reflections.
Three babies from a silted clan
huddled beneath the waterline.
Instead of names they had cautions

which they did not answer to. Tears
glistened on their cheeks like damp clay.
The miller came out of the trees
to help carry them across the bay,

along the cart road where they met
an upwind blowing out of tune
through birches. The full-bellied moon
made everything more animate,

swelling ghosts, reviving shadows
that puddled, adult-shaped, from small
wet feet. They glided through meadows,
nocturnal blooms, chaotic smells

cloying the world around their grace.
More than a family conjoined
by silhouette, their stumble gained
coherence as they ran on grass.

People stood in doorways in the town,
couples with children at their calves
brought lamps into the church. They shone
like candles in demure alcoves

dribbling red wax over white.
Emptiness blued the lead-lined glass.
Their brightness came from angles
carved as windows to another light,

flickering as I passed the wall
to where my daughter let the cold
take part of her. I pulled a shawl
around her shoulders and the child

she’d carried. When the crowd had gone,
we heard a nightingale sing out
over the beams and prayed our doubt
would let us have this as a sign

built from collective half-belief,
causality and long-drummed wars:
that those denied a chance to live
swim first among the rank of stars.

iii.

My son drowned in the salt marshes,
that’s all we know. A knife went through
the shape of him: its blood-rush drew
water from godless parishes

into his lungs while broken lips
blew at his side. I found a blade
washed up on the flats, dulled by scallops
and ropework. Brown traces of blood

painted its memory of his ribs.
One of the old trials was to swim
around the island, where birds swarm
until long-travelled blue robes

disturb their rest. They say he dived
among them for another lad
last year, was able to divide
water from itself, and would, if called

upon to prove it. That’s how drink
acquainted him with small-time men
who ran their errands when the moon
lit nothing and the sky was ink.

I taught him to follow the curves,
breathing between the sea and rain.
It’s the shape of the wave that moves,
collapses and appears again,

not the water itself. The trick
is passing through it like a thought
forgotten, moving without
end or origin. Every stroke

becomes a game, part of a dance
passed on and misremembered
through countless shifts of incidence,
renewing the shapes we’ve borrowed.

On warm nights, when the town is still,
we hear his crawl. Once, a wrecked fish
flew like a saint out of the wash,
showing my wife a barb-torn gill.

It was reclaimed into the black
beyond us, tide-tugged by moonlight,
and what remained was wrenched by lack
more permanent, deeper than night.

iv.

So every part of me belongs
to the river, and has always.
The world is a dream to the wise,
no more or less real than our songs.

Clay body, rivers, seas and lakes
vanish like bubbles in the gleam
of dawn before a sleeper wakes.
The dreamer, too, fades with the dream.

 

 

So long, Thomas Warton

As we’re about to leave Basingstoke after nearly seven happy years, it might be appropriate to mention Thomas Warton who was born on the site of Glebe Gardens, not far from here. Warton was poet laureate between 1785–1790. This sonnet is dedicated to the River Loddon, which, now culverted in places, is said to run below ground at the rear of our house.

To the River Loddon

Ah! what a weary race my feet have run
Since first I trod thy banks with alders crowned,
And thought my way was all thro’ fairy ground,
Beneath thy azure sky and golden sun;
Where first my muse to lisp her notes begun!
While pensive Memory traces back the round,
Which fills the varied interval between;
Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene.
Sweet native stream! those skies and suns so pure
No more return, to cheer my evening road!
Yet still one joy remains, that, not obscure,
Nor useless, all my vacant days have flowed,
From youth’s gay dawn to manhood’s prime mature;
Nor with the muse’s laurel unbestowed.

— Thomas Warton

I’ve run all over Basingstoke after work and on weekends. I’ll particularly miss jogging through Manydown Farm, where the fields begin, on summer evenings. My friends and I racked up some miles here. We ran the hills of Farleigh Wallop in the Basingstoke half marathon, so the first line at least rings true.

Warton’s long poem, ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’, is an anthem for introverts and recluses. I quite like it.

These are delights unknown to minds profane,
And which alone the pensive soul can taste.

— Thomas Warton