he’s been lifting my hand to stir balls
splash water, press the phone screen to life
each week a new thing: how to throw,
to clap, today, shows me he’s dripping
water from his cup onto the floor
wants me to see, makes sure
climbs backwards off the sofa
but halts at the head of the stairs, holds up his arms
later, rubs his eyes, climbs in my lap
there’s no more of me than what’s right here
I look him in the eye, sing, til he sleeps
he won’t recall reminding me
how to play, how we began to
know each other this particular way
now conclude the ex was a psychopath,
narcissist, an addict, on the spectrum,
feel sorry for their future spouse, children, dog
cut them out of photographs, sometimes stalk
them on social media, tell people
they were sexually insufficient,
in so many words, you can hint at that
if you ever bump into them you better pray
you look hot, if they cry when they see you
all the better, tell yourself you never
really loved them, inspect photos of their
new love online and criticise their looks
by no means imagine they are looking
at photographs of your new love online
saying how you were no good in the sack
that they have pictures with holes in where your
face was, a face so much younger than now
and if you meet them and they are looking
pretty fine, whatever happens don’t cry
don’t imagine they’re looking at your spouse,
children, dog, with sympathy, whispering
when you’ve passed, that you were on the spectrum,
narcissist, or maybe a psychopath
Grief is work, sets in
changing every molecule,
each cell, like love does.
sheet showing a waterfall
a pool, may not help.
There is clarity.
Some people will be let go,
you will not miss them.
There is exhaustion –
bone weariness, you’re hollow
and not who you were.
Grief’s a job to be done
or sinks low into your blood
And it will begin
to lift, some days won’t seem dark
endless, unlit roads
and you might then start
to notice a fresh season’s
smell, like a dog does
lifting your nose to
the task of living, keeping
loss like an old friend.
What I Never Wanted To Be
a) enraged by the white man
b) thinking ‘guilty until proven innocent’
c) sighing looking at listings on TV, festivals, what to reads
d) someone who can’t unsee the whitewash, the malestream
e) someone who goes to a huge well reviewed, gong bedecked play & comes out
not moved by the story, the acting the writing but saying it’s like a privileged famous white man wrote a whole giant play by waving his arrogant penis about & all the other white men let him.
f) someone whose rage gets in front of appreciating anything made or said by the middle class white man so I don’t care about that documentary on the observable universe or the music industry & what it could teach me I only shout ‘ding’ every time a white man comes on screen
and somewhere, someone
feels exactly like this
about me, my white
I don’t know
what to do
How to Treat A Girl
bone cold, white winter
gives to this
I’m in a borrowed car
with the top down,
hair lifting all around me,
I load Honor
and her ukulele in
we slick on lippy
she wears mirror shades
we hit the ring road
get up to 50
she videos my spinning hair
laughing til she coughs
and 50 Cent’s tinny
on her iphone
in the rushing air
we can’t work out
go shawty, it’s your birthday
we’re gonna party
like it’s your birthday
and we dodge into
cackling like kids,
what a gift
then it’s bean burgers
and skinny fries
blinking in the hot light
of the sun in the car park
you sure know how
to treat a girl I tell her
she hands me a donut
grins with chocolate
on her teeth
Mother’s Day, a country pub, her family ranged,
three sherries down, she chose to say,
‘You don’t think your father was my first…’
I’ve never thought virginity more than a millstone
or that she should’ve married ‘pure’ in 1953.
I’d thought, this old lady, eating beef wellington
should’ve played the field, found better
than my handsome, snakeoil dad who seduced
all he could on cricket tours, in the backs of cars.
She never even kissed another man after he left
the only man she’d ever loved or would.
He wed his secretary, an embarrassing cliche.
We laugh now, telling it, how she’d lied all along
then made jaws drop that Mother’s Day. When he died
she took my hand and said, at last she felt a widow, not a wife.
She’d smile to see us at her graveside now
with love and stories, with toasts of sherry every year.
‘You don’t think your father was my first, do you dear?’
No Dig Gardening
She’s watching youtube videos on no dig gardening
trying out words like ‘mulch’.
The man on the videos is good at squatting,
has a good head of hair, has advice about
growing vietnamese coriander.
He is wearing shorts in 2012. He could be dead now.
Here he is in the kitchen, by the aga, showing her
how to make quince jelly. He has a nice house,
a tasteful, blue tiled kitchen. He knows
how to prune gooseberries, how to sow courgette.
She remembers when you had to answer small ads,
write letters or leave recorded messages.
You only had twenty words to make an impression.
She liked that date at Northampton Museum.
All those shoes. Before youtube, you had to
go to the library and get a book on things.
You could only learn what they had on the shelves.
Life seemed simpler then, choices sometimes
tie her up in knots. She worries about things
for no reason, tension builds in her neck.
Her joints ache from cultivation.
She will try no dig gardening, try squatting,
try again with things.
The day I decided, I was making breakfast for the little prince
sitting on his booster at the head of the table. I reached into
the fridge for ‘little eggy’, his morning ritual, so like his father.
(Shave, shower, dress just so, shovel granola, slurp tea, news
on the laptop, page on, page on, then he’d be gone, leaving me
with the child.) Just lately he’s been making us say his name twice.
That stuff is cute for a while, but he’s three now. Won’t answer
unless we’ve called ‘James James!’ and I’ve played along.
The kid won’t let me go anywhere without telling him, taking him.
He says he’s taking care of me, rides in the back seat like some sort
of god. So I was reaching into the fridge, it seemed too cold, took out
the egg and as I smacked it to crack it, it didn’t give, felt solid.
I imagined, in my hand, the eggshell full of bird, curled, featherless
and big eyed, dead, like ones splayed on paths from nests in trees.
I screamed. I couldn’t look inside the shell, just threw it down.
And that’s when I knew. One too many times I’ve cracked his egg
into the shallow pan, seen floating there beside the yolk, an embryo,
a pinprick of blood, you can about ignore, or big as bean, with features
nearly, you have to catch that with a spoon, flick it in the bin. I called
next door, asked if she could watch him. I’ll be back in time for tea I said,
and she agreed. I put on my gold dress, picked up the car keys, left.
It’s years now and I’ve not been back. There’s a special hell they say,
for mothers who leave their kids, a special hell. But look at me, not happy
exactly but I’ll do. Got a job in a betting shop, learned all about odds.
They offered a reward. Put up posters round the town, but I was long gone,
dust. Sometimes I wake from dreams where I crack eggs and find in there,
the tiny shape of a daughter, waving up to me as if to say, I’m ok, really.
I lie there, thinking how things could have been. Not missing him.
A Shark Consults the Dream Dictionary
To dream of teacups is to dream of war.
A teacup’s space for the ‘theatre of war’
must be filled. The handle of the teacup
is where they think have a hold on it
but they can’t fit their warlike finger in.
To dream of hammers is to dream of war.
To dream of seagulls is to dream of war.
Seagulls have no conscience, they dive from skies
and take what they want right out of your lap.
Dreams of ballet slippers are dreams of war.
The shark’s seated at a wobbly table,
dreaming she’s a dentist in a white coat
dreaming she’s in a rowboat with no oars.
Patterns on teacups are the floral tale
of moral goodness, the achievements of war.
If you dream of hammers, just think of Thor.
You’ve looked into the cold round seagull’s eye
that’s like trying to reason against war.
A ballet slipper is the black satin
of shell casings, the handstitched slipper curves,
holds up the body, but inside there is
a misshaped mess of tortured, bloodied bone.
Lightning and thunder are the sights and sounds
of war. A missile arcing through the sky,
the brilliance of phosphorescent fire.
The shark has no power to hold down tables
and the wobbling will upset her teacup,
she has no hands to relieve suffering
of toothaches, wield the drill, but she can
smile with all her rows of dangerous teeth
and the shark can’t row the rowboat away
across the blue Mediterranean.
The shark has no voice to raise in protest.
The saucer is the place beneath the cup
where the dead are buried. A shallow grave.
This Is Happening Right Now
They’re just walking down the street, Frank and Bob,
Frank mentions he’d quite like a drink and Bob concurs
ahead they see the radiant windows of a cafe, already salivating
Frank and Bob pick up the pace, as they draw near they see
through those arched windows, it’s a Woman Cafe.
Their little hearts sink. Their little, pebble hard hearts drop like stones.
They blink, wide eyed. Suspended from every ceiling
in the place, are tiny radios. Hanging on cords, spinning. And such a
cacophony of voices are coming from those radios, it’s unearthly.
‘That’s an unearthly noise,’ Frank says and Bob concurs. ‘It’s like
the ungodly chatter of crickets’. They look in the windows and what
they see, intimidates. It’s like a painting by Frida Kahlo in there.
The chaos. Scores of women, disport themselves at tables,
just lolling around talking and laughing with big, scary mouths
open so wide Bob and Frank can see inside, red tongues,
ululating ulvulas and glittering teeth as if they had mouths full
of precious gems. The women’s legs are wide, or their feet up
on the tables and some are on high stools at the counter.
The women are drinking from bone china teacups, bone china teapots
stand around and multi tiered cake stands, bearing sandwiches
and little cakes, are pushed to the sides. They are stuffing their faces
precious gem teeth clamping down on French Fancies, on
Mini Bakewells. They are talking while they chew. The men gasp.
Strewn around with total disregard are tabloid papers.
‘There is no respect for the news.’ Frank says, he is pale.
Bob is so shocked he just can’t concur. He hasn’t got it in him.
The women are wearing what they want. It’s obvious.
‘We can’t go in there, I don’t want to!’ Bob squeaks, knowing
they’d be the only men, they’d be ignored, passed over,
disapproved of or worse, cherished, welcomed, invited in.
Frank & Bob cross over the road, take with them that impression
of generous clothes, long skirts, peaceful unblemished faces.
‘This is happening, right now,’ Frank says and Bob slowly nods his head.
The baby’s asleep on the sofa,
enforced hush makes us walk
deliberate as monks
our footsoles placed, so careful,
we lay cutlery gently
our voices low as lovers’.
His sleep, a blessing, makes us
so fully in the moment
we’re holding now like it
could break in our cupped hands.
It’s like waking early, the world
still seeming all asleep
our duty to observe the light
now lifting at the edge
of town, us bearing witness.
Or standing in first snow
that reverent stillness, not wanting
to mark it or speak.
It’s as near to holy as I can
imagine, hearing him
breathing as he sleeps.
You’ve walked up Euston Road, saw the doorway
where you kissed that man and you can’t even
remember his name now. London is so tiring. You’re past it.
The people hurling themselves along on folding bikes
on scooters, on their own flat feet and when you get
onto the tube it happens again, it always happens
someone gets on and begins to entertain the carriage.
Last time it was a poet, standing right in front of you
on the central line. You gave him a quid because you’d
found one on the pavement and it seemed the right thing
but you’d have paid him to stop. This one’s intent
on tap dancing. ‘Every time,’ you say, making eye contact
with the people near you who agree, with their eyebrows
that it’s all a bit awkward and you wish he’d stop.
The tube is a gusty tunnel of warm air that feels
like it has every germ in London rushing through it
aiming for you. And in the theatre a woman behind you
breathes so loudly all through the play and when you look
at her at the interval she looks entirely normal
you’d imagined she was in an iron lung at least. Hoped.
And the young man next to you eats an entire
Chinese meal, with chopsticks, during the second half.
You hate people, you decide. Really hate them.
Someone has a coughing fit, someone’s phone goes off
despite the insistent ushers with their glares who
stop at the ends of rows and stare. And the young man
finishes his Chinese meal and bites his nails
and it’s all you can do to stop yourself smacking
his hand. And at the end, everyone stands to clap.
‘Every time,’ you say, ‘Every time.’ Stay sitting, resolute
unable to see the cast taking their bows on stage.
And the train back is so packed you have to stand
to Milton Keynes where everyone leaps off as one.
And sitting feels like bliss, like a gift and you would like
to stay on this train forever, until it drives off the end
of Scotland and dips under the sea, surfacing
for the icy wastes of the polar ice cap before going down
the back of the globe. You could just sit and take it in.
The shoals of fish, the ice, the polar bears.
But then it’s Rugby and you have to get off.
And you remember the man kissing you in the doorway’s
name was Jethro. And you could have passed him
by the gates of the British Library and not recognised him.
And you think, you shouldn’t be let out.
And you think you won’t go out again.
today can’t be done, it’s too hard
the effort involved to lift the day
is like lifting the tarmac of a road
to give it a shake, make it undulate
white line wriggling away into the distance
a broken, flattened snake
we’re weary, to the marrow
maybe it was the wine, but this day
won’t start, it’s like cranking the engine
of an ancient car with a handle
or dropping a near dead chainsaw
from its cord hoping at the bottom
of its fall it will begin
and to waste a day is criminal
project to when you might wish
for one more day, on a deathbed maybe
plucking the candlewick bedspread
but in any case, wishing so hard
for just 24 more little hours when you
threw this day away and many like it
wishing them away, shutting the blinds
keeping schtum and a low profile
just hoping for night to come and make
the day in question, pass, just be gone
break up like smoke in air, fizzle out,
be put out like a fag end in the dregs
of a tea cup or whisky glass that little sizzle
followed by silence, daylight followed by dark
we’re so over it, this day
almost before it started
assembling it by rote like it was
the board for Mousetrap where in the end
the little boot kicks the steel ball
down the rickety steps
and the basket falls
we are those mice with their looped tails, waiting
who said, live each day like it’s your last,
wankers, and in the corners
of our eyes the possibility
that it could be and what if it was
and we’d been like this, pissed off
but not enough to enjoy it, what if it was
the last and we’d spent it, half hearted
like it was money that didn’t matter
small change, what then
We’re tipsy before it even starts.
What Italian city gives its name
to the popular pasta sauce?
Bar Scutters already at the bar
and seven of us, ordering
from the deep fried menu, onion rings
like circular sponges, anaemic chips.
Who won first, Venus or Serena?
We are grateful as it’s free
prizes in past weeks, 2 meals up to £15
a sharing platter, 2 desserts.
The Blackbird on a Monday in the rain
we shift tables, identify Ant and Dec
in the morphed picture round.
John says we can have another bottle
and we’re answering with panache.
Paloma Faith. Josh Widdicombe.
Hands hovering over the buzzer
in the buzzer round.
Which countries begin and end with A?
The free desserts are confections
of squirty cream and we weigh in.
Which Bond films are named after buildings?
We win the gallon of beer, swap ciders
for a bottle of wine, bag a bag of crisps.
Which capital city in Great Britain
comes first in the alphabet?
We miss out on the jackpot.
Which film grossed highest at the box office
It was not ET.
The quiz man says, you can swap
if you want. We could double our pound
but get it wrong, wait for a taxi
under the porch, Bar Scutters smoking fags
talking footie, they’re going into town
even though it’s Monday.
And the men argue about probability
on the way home. I’m pleased
I knew two answers in the music round
Paul Simon and another one.
John says, we’re better when we’re drunk
and I have not got Christine dancing
like I said I would, but there’s time.
The Bee Women
Maggie and Hafsah are up on the roof,
it’s their turn with the bees and Hafsah’s
telling Maggie all the flowers they could plant
Cornflower, Candytuft, Love-in-a-mist.
The bee women have hives on high rises
they’re saving the cities, work all day, raise kids
and climb the stairs to tend the bees at night.
Maggie is dancing, making her limbs, torso
bend in a way the bees might read, she’s brought
messages like the women always do
like their sisters, centuries and continents away.
Poached egg plant, Hafsah says, headscarf
bright as poppies, pot marigolds.
Maggie sways and turns, spelling out
what Errol at the shop wants to tell his mother.
Bees carry messages to the dead
just as they carry fat bundles of bright pollen
on their inky, hinging, breakable looking legs.
And birds are visible spirits of the dead.
Maggie sees the wren, answering her
from its perch on the apex of a hive.
Up here, close to the sky, the women tend
the bees, plant gardens, welcome birds
to bring the answers back. They don’t believe
in omens, in Cleopatra’s empty gourd
only the magic of trust, whispered words
carried across from this world, from the next.
Foxgloves, crocus, heliotrope, Hafsah says
as Maggie sits and pours hibiscus tea.
The girl unwinds her week as if each day
was made of words and they’ve been spooled tight on
a bobbin that’s hung on the front axle
of the Skoda, one end tied to the Thames
and as we motor North the thread of them
unfurls as wheels turn, tarmac, white lines, cats’
eyes, feed underneath our feet. She has more
words that you thought possible, has the whole
alphabet falling into place, over
and over, and she has dictionaries
unhitching contents, page after page, print
falling into the footwells and mouldings
the grooves on the mushroom style dash knobs
the cupholders, the door handles, plugging
the cigarette lighter hole, hanging in
looping festoons from the rear view mirror.
By the time we leave at Junction 15
they are flowing through the outlet louvres
and into the night, kicking up behind
in clouds of cartoon exhaust and the sun
visors can’t bear the weight of it, flop down
in front of our eyes, showing our own pale
dazed faces in the vanity mirrors.
And we leave the Carlsberg factory wreathed,
the A508 a dark ribbon behind
us, congested with a spiralling fog.
Alf and Lily and You and Me
(for Christine & Val)
Baby Alf won’t sleep long
just long enough for me to call
hear how, in the night your mother died,
leaving, just as we’d said she would,
when nobody was looking.
You’ve got baby Lily in the bath.
Our mothers were the stoic sort
with after-the-war mentalities
beliefs that rationing made them healthy
mixing their powdered eggs.
I’ll remember her I say, that glint
in her eye, winning games at Christmas
not like she’s been these last few months
end of life drugs in the cupboard
world reduced to her front room.
That’s not the measure of her,
with her jobs, her kids, her feisty talk
dolled up at family parties in hipster basements
side by side with Glenda on a vintage sofa
observing, no doubt, she’d chucked one like it out.
We’re shaping up for that
you and me, the generation after next
sitting on our hips with their old fashioned names
Alf and Lily, making us grand
like our mothers before us, like our daughters will be.
And while we’re talking on the phone
Lily poos in the bath. We laugh and laugh.
It’s how we’re reminded, life goes on.
You send us a photo of the bathroom
in your new flat, central Ljubljana.
You have just moved in.
Sat by the three bridges in December,
sipping hot wine, wrapped in blankets, we felt
It looks other, with the green grout, the tiles
and a square shower tray with no curtain,
even the shelving.
You’re doing everything in another
language now, even dreaming, you tell me.
You have an accent.
There’s a white towel hanging on the rail
the word I can make out, printed across
is the word ‘theatre’.
You are thinking in it now, sometimes pause
talking to us, searching like a native
for the English word.
You’re joking in it with the many friends
we see in photos, on sailboats, on docks,
naked in blue seas.
You teach us a few words: Dobro jutro,
is good morning, Hvala is for thankyou,
like koala, you smile.
Opposite the toilet there’s a washing
machine and I think of you sitting there,
watching your clothes spin
misted by the spray from the shower head,
three hour’s flight and one hour ahead of us,
singing in another tongue.
(Nečak is Slovene for ‘nephew’. The NaPoWriMo prompt was to take a poem in another language and translate in an imaginary way. I took Breathing Together by Slovenian poet Barbara Korun as a starting point, imagining it described the photo above.)
The house dropped away from its neighbour
leaving exposed, where they had met, paired
the hearths, the rumours of joists, and there
wallpaper in room sized squares.
The stairs left their mark, step, stepping diagonal
and the ghost of chimneys led up to the stars.
The other side, life went on as before.
Meals were made on the range and served.
The children climbed the wooden hill to bed
aware that where formerly, breathing swelled
was air and dark and night, wind pressing
at the bare bricks and nothing would be the same.
Like that, we are changed
being closer to the elements than we were
we light our fires, draw the blinds
and name it grief so it has less power.
What He Teaches Me.
He’s twenty five, a boy, soft beard and specs
not the sort you’d see in fights, no jeering
no objectifying, his lines are soft,
looking already like a jovial
grandpa who’d have boiled sweets in the glove box
who’d listen to the cricket in a shed
pottering, keeping his own company.
He’s telling me this story, how he put
a lake on stage, it leaked. He tells it well,
the play creeping to its end, the water
creeping slowly towards power cables
and him, measuring the lines left against
the electrocution of the character
who was still immersed, how he let it run
right to the close and then took the applause.
I think then, he’s all the things about not
speaking out, not making a fuss, or not
bringing attention to yourself, putting
people out. He is polite, English, white.
Then he tells me he emailed eighteen times
to get this chance. Seventeen, no replies
he kept right on, again, again, putting
it sweetly, what he wanted, over and
over til one day they just said ok.
Then there in the humour, the gentleness,
I see the steel – a hard, bright seam of it,
glinting. Now I look. I see the choice to
let the play run to its end was not weak.
He knew what he wanted, he took the risk.
third finger, left hand
for 40 years I’d barely touched a string
that knuckle, fattened up by the rebound
of a basketball on its fingertip
on the day before the Grade 3 exam
and my guitar teacher, red muttonchop
whiskers quivering with half muted rage
as I sauntered in, finger bandaged, stiff
as a mummy and somehow I still passed
til I met the muso, who made me play
then put a ring on it, fat silver
I bought myself at the stand between
M&S and the food court at Fosse Park
it’s woken in a burst of pain, one day
after uke class, when I’ve been teaching G
big knuckle flaming, a reminder that
whatever happens, I know I can win
Why I Loved Horses
Where it came from
was anybody’s guess
that gift of a cowgirl suit
my brother teaching me
to spin the gun on my finger
sleeve it in the holster in one smooth move.
I practiced hours in my stetson
in my fringed suede waistcoat
chaps sheathing my shins.
That birthday made me old enough.
Mum drove me to the village
in her open topped Sprite, headscarfed like Jackie O.
They stamped in the stable
jerking heads, tearing hay, breathing
through soft, pink suede nostrils.
They were so big. Walls of meat.
Miss Cramp slinging on the saddle, pulling up the girth,
twice, snapping the stirrups down
and me, swung on top
grasping the pommel, giddy,
Spring Born Carnival measuring the air with his ears.
Nobody before me in the family tree
of clippies and housemaids
of tailors and shop girls, loved horses.
Maybe just being taken there
the grey grease on my knuckles
coarse mane tangling in my grip
on the broad leather rein
as my mother smoked,
leaning on the red bonnet of that car
made it happen.