When the last twig-wing snaps
you ask to be fed. Just this:
one single gape so wide it turns
your pale head inside-out
and threatens to burst blood
until every thread of moss
and every egg in the tree
foresees defeat. You demand
more worms and I must feed
you from first note to last
murmuration. I am tired, leaf-
thin, not broken-spirited
but warted by time and canker
like the oaks’ awkward elbows.
I slow-hop, my heart is shrunk
to a breadcrumb. You were given
to us and we couldn’t resist
your singular strangeness.
I would do the same again,
despite the reason you went bad –
a glitch in the mothering.
– placed 2nd in the Plough Poetry Prize 2014
The Great Vowel Shift
It was just before lunch when the first signs came:
the big flat of my tongue trembled, something lodged
between molars, quiet at first, the odd groan,
like an oak drawer not quite settled.
I heard your words lift from chin to eye, ripe with crunch
or a clock chime. It struck me as strange, the long pull
of voices stretching themselves thin like catgut
or pudding skin. All day we tested sounds
like new clothes, filled them out, always up and round.
By night-time our jaws ached. You lay down and moulded
in your mouth love-words from flax and streetlight.
Listen, I think you said, and laughed.
– first published in The Rialto 78, October 2013
East from Seahouses
after Ian Duhig
We roll into Seahouses in May, nosing our blue-grey Picasso
into the car park between coaches and queues for the loos.
Beyond here, just the sandflats of Northumberland, the film sets
and castles with waxworks, pulling in the Harry Potter crowd.
We’re for the sea. On the quayside a man with LOVE and HATE
tattooed on his knuckles helps us into the Glad Tidings, roped
up and rocking gently, its cargo of National Trust members,
excitable children and bird watchers slung round with khaki
waterproofs, binoculars. Chugging out to the Farnes a voice
on the microphone speaks of puffins, cormorants, kittiwakes,
terns, all the black and white birds in a noisy swirl, gathered here,
and us the audience, wrapped and hunched in the drizzle,
squinting eastwards at moving shapes in the grey seascape
pretending not to notice the cold and the stench of guano,
and I think of those football matches on TV in the seventies
when each team wore grey, the shirts had no names but we knew
who was who. Nick grips my shoulder, shouts something
in my ear, points. It could be puffin but I’m looking at nothing,
picturing the lounge bar of The Anchor and how it might feel
to be the dry side of a window, Nick telling me the Vikings
never wore horned helmets, asking if I’d like another half.
– first published in The Interpreter’s House 55, March 2014
They’ve been coming since posters were invented:
sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats
or dressed in Liverpool shirts. Each one appeared
in my diary, in code. My mother wouldn’t explain,
I couldn’t ask. And still they would come, insistent.
They left my body as they found it: I never wanted
them to stay, or change things. It’s been a while since
I wrote a diary. I don’t know how many there were,
I wasn’t counting. Too busy getting on with
the business of getting on. For the last, though,
I would have thrown a party, marked the occasion
in some way, worn something red, if I had known.
– first published in The Rialto 75, Jul 2012