The holy grail, distilled wisdom
of all the world, slips sideways
through the fingers of authority.
Never mind the years of waiting,
the great fish caught and gutted,
the dragon trapped in the pit,
the long simmered broth of herbs,
it always goes astray. The poet
is always that chance apprentice
sucking his clumsy thumb,
scarred, accidental, listening.
You can find a version of the story of the burned thumb here.
I write poems based in landscape and community, exploring the many different dimensions of the dialogue we hold with whatever environment supports us – biological, social, spiritual – how we live on the earth and with each other, how we react to the passage of time, what beauty we find in living, and the ways we deal with grief and loss and hard times. I’m influenced by my study of geopoetics, permaculture, folklore and the mythological traditions of northern and western Europe, and the mystical traditions of Christian monasticism. Currently I’m working on poems about herbs, the wild edges of settled lands and human communities, and the prospect of environmental and social upheaval.
I sometimes post poems on the blog, and you can also see them at Peony Moon, Well-Versed, and at Catapult to Mars here and here . There are some poems on the archive pages of the excellent READRAW website, curated by Mo Blake, Ian Hunter, G.W. Colkitto and Wullie Purcell. You can see the Filmpoem Alastair Cook made of Visiting the Dunbrody Famine Ship here.
This poem was highly commended in the William Soutar poetry competition of 2015
Once I made a boat
from the thin spear of iris leaf,
a slit along the central vein,
the supple tip bent, pushed through
to form a blown out sail,
a flat vertical for mast,
a keel and pointed centreboard
for balance, a toy for childhood.
Later it was a plant I longed
to draw, to make it mine –
loving how its buttery bright falls,
way-marked for entering bees,
disclose the up-curled standards
gold flames in the green dips where rain
soaks the sullen grasping clay.
It’s red-listed now, grown scarce
since land is prized for houses –
the yellow flag, a messenger,
of blended light and water
in outposts of neglected land.
this poem first appeared on Ginny Battson’s Blog Seasonalight, and is dedicated to her
There are people who know the world
in specifics – not gull, but black-backed,
(lesser and greater), black-headed,
common, glaucous and herring.
There are people who know the woods –
not trees, but oak, willow, hazel,
aspen, and lime, and not oak
but sessile or pedunculate.
There are people who learn the names,
the Latin, the genus, the cultivar,
making lists for countries and years,
and the life-list with all the ticks,
the bbjs, and the gaps they need to fill.
And then, there are other people
whose hands and eyes know everything,
who taste the wind for salt or coming rain,
who find the right leaf, or root, or berry
for health or flavour, without a word spoken.
There are people who know their gardens
like their family, their lawn like their own skin,
a new bird by the frisson the cat makes,
even before the stranger’s call
breaks into the grey still morning.
And who can tell us which of these
knows best, knows more, can teach,
protect or harvest earth and sky
and water for the common good?
Or shall we try for both, a lore
of senses, heart and mind at one,
where knowledge and compassion
are held in equal balance, equal trust?
From Wherever We Live Now
The sequence Eurydice Rising first appeared in Poetry Scotland
Moniage 1: Orpheus in the Wilderness
Orpheus deserts his post. Her flight
is like a magpie raid on his whole life –
what isn’t gone is broken, pulled apart.
Only the harp goes with him, and he plays
in doorways, under arches, in the space
between the human places. When he sings,
the trees bend down to listen. No-one else will.
He is lost without her, and demented,
follows strange girls home, asks who’s hiding her,
shouts obscenities at those who pass him by.
He hears voices in the dark, and follows them
out into wilder places, to be alone.
He comes on children, picking brambles,
noisy, carefree, quick and neat as birds.
They do not notice him, and go their way
unfrightened, and he hears the women call
them home to breakfast. When they are gone
the silence stirs him like a changing wind.
He says, “I used to do that, long ago.”
He thinks of berries shining, intact, black,
the small hairs tickling his outstretched palm,
the scratches worn like war wounds, and the brag
of secret places, where there’s loads still left.
That’s when the door opens, the shadowed way
beneath the grey rock, to the other place.
The best known occurrence of moniage – in medieval English literature, a ritual time of trial in the wilderness – is the obscure but charming poem Maiden on the Mor Lay, which is referenced in Moniage 2.
Moniage 2: Orpheus Comes to the Gates of the Underworld
I on the moor lay, seven nights, seven years,
Until the earth’s thin blood ran in my veins
Like peaty water running off the hill.
I fought the bee for honey, stole fish
From otters, drove the eagles from the hare.
I listened there to everything that moved,
Skylark, raven, and the dry sharp scrape
Of stone on stone. I heard the dead of winter,
And where the curlew poked his muddy bill,
I heard lost Eurydice call my name.
What was I looking for? I hardly knew –
A music speaking more to soul than heart,
Since hearts had failed me. I came at last
To a sea-cliff in the west, a warren
Full of wailing ghosts, shearwaters,
Gannets, petrels, kittiwake –
Lunatic, like the voices in my head.
A gull cried kee-yah! in the windy dark.
Morning, like an egg-shell cracked, and spilt
Warm bloody light upon the king’s grey rock.
This poem first appeared in the on-line magazine New Linear Perspectives in 2014
Blanket bog clothes the land
like a black melancholy, shrouding
the slopes in the weight of its slo-mo layers.
Grudges and peat break down slowly.
Bones of old loves and hates
are kept intact for ever.
Sphagnum can absorb
twice its own weight in tears.
Crazy insectivorous plants
thrive on trapped flies and imagined slights,
and lost birds wail, raking through pools
and stirring the endless mud.
Keep it safe, keep it undisturbed.
Under these tons of peat and apathy
enough carbon is sequestered
to melt the last chips of polar ice
and burn up every one of us
on the whole raging earth.
This poem was first published in Dark Mountain 3, in 2013
Explaining a Few Things to Neruda
You will ask why my poetry
speaks of leaves and green rivers
and that family of goosanders
spinning and diving and drifting downstream
on the ebb tide this rainy morning.
Where are the unemployed? you ask,
the litter, the broken windows,
graffiti curse-words and allegations,
the lost generation, the hope of revolution?
You will ask why my poetry is so pretty,
all those woodlands and winter skies,
when jobs are scarce and art is strangled
and freedom is bought and sold with oil.
In those fields we have no lapwings,
no hares, a stillness of yellow rape,
and wheat after barley after wheat.
The skylark song is quenched in rain.
The moon rises over green absence.
Once there were bitterns in those reeds –
salmon, kingfisher, tufted duck,
children at the village school – all gone.
We wash the guilt of extinction off our hands.
Oh, see, the blood of extinction on our hands!