The Cat in the Pechka (Bulgarian Stove)

Just cooking up a dream or two

til day becomes night through

log becoming dust this is how

the cat mind works

sleeping is the art

of knowing when to leave the world

when to curl up under a burnt stewing pan

complete trust solid within

last night’s meat and feathers circulating

babayaga saw it all and shook her grey head

no longer able to see the moon and stars

unless she lies down

Just warming up whiskers and all

the ancestral blood the lynx still around in stripes

down to the tail

holding the story neat and circular

when yawning note the teeth

the ribbed red mouth

the closed eyes and wherever the dream

there is always a human

somehow envious somehow

too close to get anywhere near.

Poem for Sylvia Plath

Above Heptonstall

Hovering in space
where the hive once stood,
where the dance took place,
the bee, as day condenses,
loses the plot.
Who moved the hive and why?
Quiet, try not to mention
that name.
The form is vital
it carries harmony or dissonance
holds the emotion
we all have it
whether we like it or not.

Droplets form
on its cellophane wings
when red light senses
It’s no longer
one of the sun’s translators
but a small sculpture
shaped by the moon,
shivering and slow
in the predawn grass.
In extremis?

A fat queen’s decrees
mock a sac of poison.
And they can’t return
to its former sweet glory
any more than tumbled stone
can form a hexagon,
a cell of hope.
Day closes in along long tong scrog,
things move away,
like truth,
like people next door.

The curlews see but do not know
we know but cannot see.
Their beaks are mythological,
their calling is immediate
They enrich the land
like history.
Shall we plant a pen in the ground
and wait for it to flower?
She had a thing
about red tulips and poppies,
petals that make the heart pump.

The lane’s lamps hum
red, orange, yellow, white,
the life of stars in reverse.

Things close in,
day moves away in a dandelion,
little sun, fertile ghost.
In the valley
lights swarm around the houses
and dark spaces.

Bird Perfect

An original poem inspired by the work of Dutch designer, artist and draughtsman M.C. Escher. I was more than happy when a music teacher at the San Fransisco Conservatory of Music, Jonathan Herman, emailed me to ask permission to put the words to music for a project he was involved in. You can read more about Escher and more poems here:

Bird Perfect

These birds emerging into night

are mirrored by the birds of day

and echoes backwards into light

come forward out of darkest grey.

The land jigsaws into the birds

and shapes their flight away from mind

as sound is captured by the words

to pattern sense for humankind.

But order out of chaos seems

an impossibility. These

birds emerge out of their own dreams,

achieve perfection with such ease.

Image of  Day and Night, 1938, by MC Escher. Images courtesy of Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag/the MC Escher Company


Dreaming together, twins of soul, we breathe

the same air through to the light of new day,

each intake an exchange, each exhalation

a further mutual mingling that may,

between separate rhythms, become one.

Horizon to horizon, our healing;

sun’s nutrient blood, the culmination

of distant rain in all its mad glory.

As stars free dark sky, our dreams free dark feeling,

so when we wake, the river’s interior

lives within your raw and fragile mindscape

and, being twins, so does my exterior.

As one, and two, we across the water escape.

Each night takes shape around our different dreams.

Each day the river finds its own extremes.

Photograph: Taken from the boat Diamante on a journey from Tabatinga to Manaus, Amazonas, Brasil.

Mother of Future Melody

We found a traumatised fledgling blackbird one early summer. It had been attacked by something – cat, sparrowhawk, magpie? – and was just sitting there in shock waiting to be snatched away for good.

The general advice when stray fledglings are found is to leave well alone and wait for the parents to come rescue. This usually works ok I’m sure and it is the best advice around. But this particular young bird was not going to survive for long so we gently scooped it up and carried it home.

We learned how to look after it, fed it earthworms for weeks, kept it in a shoebox which we put holes in for air and cleaned daily. It grew and grew. It got smarter and some might say, wiser. It began to flute and whistle and speak blackbird, most endearing.

If you ever want to know what a healthy appetite looks like, raise a young blackbird and count how many worms it can eventually swallow. But it’s not only the quantity, which is goggling enough, it’s the manner in which the food is eaten. Awesome. Almost disturbing. But all for and in a good cause.

Voltaire the French philosopher recommended gardening as the most productive way for a human being to pass the time. And William Burroughs the Beat novelist and author of such books as Naked Lunch was crazy about cats.

The modern American philosopher Christine Korsgaard writes:

“When you pity a suffering animal, it is because you are perceiving a reason. An animal’s cries express pain, and they mean that there is a reason, a reason to change its conditions. And you can no more hear the cries of an animal as mere noise than you can the words of a person. Another animal can obligate you in exactly the same way another person can. …So of course we have obligations to animals.” 

 1996, The Sources of Normativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

I say, if you want to learn about dedication and love, spend two or more months raising a baby bird to full flight and watch it fly off into the sunset. You’ll be moved to tears of simultaneous sorrow and joy. Joy wins out in the end because you’ll know that, in the case of a female bird for example, she will eventually raise more songsters, which is a thrill to know. And a male (blackbird in this case) will already be a songster, of some repute.

The photograph is of ‘our’ blackbird sunning herself on a hot day. Actually she’s using a wondrous method of cooling off many birds use which involves spreading out all feathers in a sort of homage to the sun. Beautiful.

Here’s poem I wrote about a male blackbird:


A quick sip of yesterday’s rain

for the blackbird is ex cloud.

It tastes the clearing sky

from a plastic gutter

and is then ready for our landscape

which includes brick,

toys and next door’s tarmac desert.

I hear that song that

profound evaporation

most mornings are made of

repeated, composed in a rotting elder

that has had its fill of summers.

Quarantine/Lockdown Sonnet 38

Inspired by the pre-dawn bird – often a blackbird but sometimes a robin, rarely a sparrow or a dunnock – shifting the alignment fluting across the warm, still air of early summer, with barely a hint of light or clue that a new day is about to begin.

I sent this sonnet to Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley, intrepid host of the BBC’s The Verb (Radio 3) and he thought it was a “beautifully crafted sonnet; it’s got a real power and subtlety to it.”

You can listen to the reading below.

Sonnet 38

How the first bird to sing alters the weight
of dark, tipping night into day and me
out of bed. You’ll sleep on in half-light,
that even breathing an almost holy
counterbalance I marvel at, envy.
Forgive the intrusion. Out of kilter
on the rutted, low fold track, sloping dry
down to where ash and sycamore filter
the sun’s early burning. Yes, it’s all here —
your tiny foliage fires, her fine frosts
across shadow and pond; solitude’s hare
feeding, the understanding never lost.
This thing on my tongue? Tidbit of soul.
Inside, out of place. Outside, in control.

Art and Shaping Our Animal

Humans have been using art as a form of self-expression for millenia. From the cave paintings of bison and aurochs and lions of Lascaux in France, to the Cueva de los Manos in Argentina, where hands cover the rock in a strangely modern design, artistic ventures have helped define what it is to be a member of the homo sapiens species.

Some experts have theories about this primitive yet emotionally moving art – they call it ‘shamanic’ or ‘magico-religious’ believing that early Paleolithic humans painted images as part of religious ritual. There’s no convincing evidence for this but what is known is that there are lots and lots of animal figures compared to human figures, which suggests that these first artists were mightily inspired by the wildlife around them. They may have, inadvertently, used zoomorphism symbolically. Hardly surprising – we hadn’t yet come to think of ourselves as the dominant species.

We were innocents. We were perhaps all equal in a societal sense. There was no war, no salary, no oppression? Ego as we know it hadn’t yet been born but with those initial animal images the beginnings of separation was at hand. Cave painting became a new way of creating a new truth – the human need to convey feelings through creative expression.

I’ve seen the hands of adults and children at the Altamira cave in Spain, sprayed on with ochre paint. There are beautiful animals on the rock too. It is art before we invented language, before we knew how to articulate our feelings. Perhaps that’s why I left the cave with a sense of deep wonderment mixed with profound loss.

Pablo Picasso is said to have visited the cave at Altamira, remarking “Beyond Altamira, all is decadence.”

What with pandemics and climate change and political turmoil now seems as good a time as any to get back to the cave and get on with more truthful art. And it’s about time we started to treat animals symbolically again, as equals, with rights, and not to slaughter them for pleasure or monetary gain.

If we could only live up to our name….Homo sapiens….human being wise, sensible and judicious, with a comma after human.

‘Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth.’

Ai Weiwei, artist.

Picture is of Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK. You can learn more about sculpture here:

Flying In Cougarland

A holiday in Oregon, USA, found us out in the snowy wilderness as a family, on a hike out to Pamelia Lake. It was an exciting, long trek. I wrote this sonnet during the pandemic lockdown.

Sonnet 29

Alarming this bizarre scenario,
a recall from the state of Oregon —
dense, unbroken pine, a road of fresh snow
deep to our knees, narrowing right down
to wild, black shadow, the edge of what’s shown.
Cougar tracks early on; now fork left, stay straight,
follow old snowshoe prints; blaze a trail through
virgin snow, on to the frozen forest lake.
And then no one. Just two sons, me and you,
the buzz, impenetrability, our years
into each step Pamelia demanding.
We all gained and lost, what? Sweat. Love. Fears.
That hardship’s reward is a fairy tale ending
in Cougarland, without being eaten.

What Is Poetry?

Poetry is naked feeling clothed by designer words in a quiet space, an attic or cellar, of a loud house.

Poetry is disappearing into emotion, emerging with words.

Poetry is at first a formless mythical creature, the Syllamultipede, the Rithimodus, the Flammaquando, the Ixth, that lives anywhere you want it to and takes any form it can but only when you write it down or speak it.

Poetry is feeling right about the words that make your head and heart buzz in unison as you write them down in a line long or short.

Poetry isn’t prose but is related through the common blood of language, spoken or written. Some poetry may be thought of as prose ‘chopped up’, sentences that

fail to reach the end of

the line.

This is certainly a distinguishing feature of written poetry, it goes where it will and cares not a jot for the conventional line. Form too can be thrown out the window, and the window frame thrown out too. Cos we’re innovative, innit?

Listen, I hear Mr Pertinax Frost turning in his grave.

Poetry is conversation, as you find it on the street or in the living room? That’ll be free verse poetry then cos most people of sane mind DO NOT speak in rhyme or formal set metre (meter in American English). Generally speaking, people also refrain from using experimental grammar when they talk to each other. Meaningful dialogue would suffer, as would function. My drift getting? Drift off to get my meaning.

Poetry isn’t the street then. It’s not the living room. It’s not ordinary use of the lingo – is it? Is it? Has it ever been? Should it ever be? So it has to be extraordinary use of the language? I’d say, tentatively, yes, poetry is language emotively born to be out of the ordinary.

Politics aside, academia aside, poetry is a vast country, a continent, a world, a planet, a universe ever expanding into a condensed, fragmented, differentiated version of itself.

There was an old planet called Earth

Who gave all the poets their birth

She span round the sun

Till spinning was done,

Till the poets had had their words worth.

The Distance Between Words

I love to walk as often as I can. Three times a day is currently prescribed, the first and third following meals, the one in between just before or after a pot of tea. This regime isn’t set in stone, nor is the routine rock solid with regards to timing. A walk can easily turn into a nature stroll, an observation ramble, a hike. Into the woods if it’s windy, to be hypnotised by thin swaying sycamore and clashing ash; to the supermarket if we’re in need of essentials such as brown bread and loose tea. Sometimes we plan a hike, pack a bag, pocket a map and leg it down dale, taking all day, absorbing, exploring, adoring, deploring. We picnic wayside, in a gothic graveyard, under a splendid lone oak, on a hill overlooking where we’ve come from and where we might be going to. It all depends on what’s happening between words, between breaths, between friends.

The photo above is of Loch Arkaig in the Scottish Highlands. I went walking here, to the bothy at Glenpean, and a mighty good walk it was too. There’s an osprey nest at the loch which you can follow on the Woodland Trust Webcam. Awesome place.

And here is a poem I wrote about the bothy experience. There are some formal stanzas followed by lines that are sketchy and probably need retuning at some stage.

                                                To the Immaculate Bothy

                              You leave behind the life they thought 
                               ideal, leave the silver car beneath a rainbow
                              and walk towards ruins not on any map
                               carrying coal on a blue scarred back.

                               You’re alone in remote mountains
                               that crowd in with their gaelic names
                               like exotic  food on a darkening menu.
                               Thin pines sway and scrape as cold

                               knockabout gusts like rough breaths
                               rush through. Then stillness, the wood

                                reforming its stoic concentration.
                                You climb into better ideas
                                knowing they have no clue of your whereabouts.
                                You’re on the run like always, a soul

                                gone wrong because they got too close.
                                Their things were too old or too new
                                and forced you down onto this unforgiving bog
                                which constantly weighs you up, forming

                                lizard, shaping frog that love to stare and smile
                                while the river splits its mind ahead, emptying
                                the deepest loch, filling peaty pools. You follow
                                   because there is no alternative to red deer,
                                   the way they look up from grazing they have
                                   a pure stance out here gracing the stink

                               a place somehow you always knew

Stag horns lie like ancient

                        clouds close in asking for references.
                         filling up a glacial loch,
                      emptying another. And salmon are returning their 
                     stares to the stones where they first emerged.

They cannot cry.
We are far from their eye.
boulders stay confusion, tumbled rock encourages moss to cheat the green of time
and red deer grace the stink of bog.
They cannot cry.
We are too far from their eye.

The sun struggles with indifferent mist, like romance with sweat,
like two versions of yourself eating poor man’s porridge,
watching the birth of silver waterfalls.
Two ravens call and know what it is they see from the crag

what is clear below is the breath of those
far from their eye.
They cannot cry.

The lizard and adder are slow to wake
in the grass that resembles solitude gone right.
The ruin not shown on the map is peopled with weed
and all words escape from the white signpost the giant self impaled.
The wilderness is deep but the bothy gleams in gold.
We are further from the eye
that cannot cry.

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