Black Country

He dammed the river needlessly
it overflowed in spate
did she calculate or carelessly
forget the weir gate?

the syllables were spilled and washed
the torrent sluiced the bier
she levelled blame, and he, abashed,
held back from drawing near

but language was his barrier
and water, spirit borne,
grew tongues until philosophy
was anvil, mare and corn.

Birmingham Hymn

Integral force of prayer
compounds base firmament
elevating sacrament
to fiery heaven, where,

holding locks surprised
God's tower is defended,
Time is wrecked and ended,
sparkling, Christianised.

Love or nothing

No verse ever gets it right and
says exactly how these things are,
if ever any language does

Words do not come at our command
and like the light from distant stars
show each thing only as it was

And even there the light is wrong,
the trace is clumsy in the touch,
and love is never caught in stone

For your sake stop my mouth and song,
which says too little or too much,
and pare my language to the bone

That love at last might find a voice
that touches both the peak and trough
and steadies each in balanced thought

To know when love is not a choice,
to know when love is not enough,
and know when love is all, or nought.

The Hundred Acre Wood

exit pursued by a bear

So bring the rain, Red Leader, bring the rain
For nothing now can ever be the same
And nothing now can come to any good
It’s Khmer Rouge Year Zero
In the Hundred Acre Wood

Agent Orange is a rumour on the wind
And evangelists insist that all have sinned
Who knows where common decency once stood?
It took the Fifth Amendment
In the Hundred Acre Wood

Where Mick Jagger has a gun across his knees,
The tracker dogs are nose up to the breeze
And Tigger, Pooh and Piglet are hiding in the trees

Groovy Bob is sober, Brian Jones is pissed,
The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift half-heartedly persist
To try to fill a vacuum where once stood Robin Hood
Green Men going native
In the Hundred Acre Wood

Teddybears array beneath the flagging Hindu sign
Of a sunwheel god, ecstatic and malign
Oaths and avowals based on soil and blood
Will stand a thousand years
In the Hundred Acre Wood

The lacerated worm forgives the sullen plough
Iconoclasts take potshots at every sacred cow
And membership of the National Trust cannot save you now

Old Possum tries his hardest to ignore 
The desperate, frantic rapping at the door 
His harried mind cannot compose the sentences it should
From Dog Fox Field on Margate Sands
To the Hundred (S)acre(d) Wood

While racist background static continues night and day
Dog-whistling to the herrenvolk as they come out to play
It’s just another chapter in a tale where none are good
Paid on both betraying sides 
In the Hundred Acre Wood

The helicopter gunships smile on those below
Camouflage becomes them in a way they couldn't know
We shout our drunken raucous way through Hal-an-Tow

The earth compelled the service to be read by candlelight
For those who wrecked themselves in nothing more than spite
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud
And prayers have been said backwards
In the Hundred Acre Wood

And nothing now can come to any good
So bring the rain, Blue Leader, (although I doubt you could)
Having drained from us our reason 
Forgive us now our treason
In the Hundred Acre Wood

And curse the waters of the rising flood
Shantih Covid Shantih
Shantih Brexit Shantih
Shantih Fucking Shantih
In the Hundred Acre Wood

The Busby Babes

Too young to know these lads and think them great,
I had to rest on what my uncle said.
Coaxed with beer in Altrincham pubs, he’d wait
until their vivid ghosts had filled his head;
not black and white, like newsreel films I knew,
but proud before the Stretford End in red,
an average age of barely twenty-two
yet strong enough to frighten Real Madrid.

How good they might have been no one can state.
Perhaps the game was never better played
than by the players in that tragic show,
abruptly ended in the Munich snow,
when they had run their hearts out in Belgrade,
February 6th, 1958.

Triptych From an Imaginary War

i. Child-king amongst his subjects

Slapping him on the back
the old boy with the pitch-fork twang
tells him to have his pick of the girls
 
The girls, slouched in the cottage door,
do not know how to take this,
and that night, dumb with terror,
say nothing when he comes
 
This angers him;
he petulantly rides away at dawn,
having first ordered the castration of the yokel,

And works off his temper
by invading France

 
ii. Shakespeare and co.
 
It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it;
maintaining a presence, that is,

Unopened bodies lie in their bags
at border outposts where
no lieutenants come
to pass their orders round
 
They should have been identified and buried,
they should have been recorded and dispatched
 
They should not have been
sitting in the meadow by the river
quietly quoting poetry
 
That, is carelessness,
that, is how things like literature start

 
iii. The Song of Macmorris
 
She was willow when the grass was green
and the orchard of her country
was covering, blessed and sweet

She was hawthorn when the bier froze and mummers in their element
were iron hard to dragon thaw
 
She was the blossom of cherry trees
when ghosting drovers and airmen
rattled the squalling year
 
She was russet when the hill fell soft
in the turning from ripe to raw
when she was nature's country 
and its civil war 

King Horse

Horse thinks he remembers two things from the past

He finds it hard not to see the meadow as a battlefield,
the shimmering ghostly troops
a heat wave after Michaelmas
the crack of fire,
bushes of gunpowder charging from the copse

At this point, she will dismount and lead his muffled clop
through the drifting snow and the lung-shadow trees

He knows the night will be thin;
the tail lights of aeroplanes will wink above the stable,
their insect buzz betrayed
by false forgotten weather

And on waking, he will recall his second memory

His blank nobility
before the bridle is fitted
kindles spectral light
refracting from the corners
of rooms with mirrors,
standing orders and judicial wigs

I watch her on horseback in the unpolluted field,
where my clot of thoughts
do not obtain their promised words

Pictures in my mind become
falling distant objects;
Time is down as she rides by,
her newly broken horse
a high-born, kingly creature,
whose stance under burden
proclaims reincarnation

Even in these notes
there is something of the reinvented horse;
a transformed air,
charged with spirits and mayflies

And as far out as the edge of sense
such weights and measures break us,

Yet this furlong of light
is where we belong:

An acre of space
with a memory horse
loose in the unfenced heart

Reciprocating Engines

 If life and love were simple
 and call met echo in return
 this language would be ample
 and song would lie unborn

 but keen and cry and sorrow
 reflect the loss and weight
 when balance is unequal
 to this eccentric state
 
 No steam, nor steel nor matter
 redress the fractured heart,
 nor word, not art, nor sympathy
 contend to salve or part
 
 So each within existence
 contrives to spoil or mend
 and lie in happy balance
 or the best they can pretend 

Past imperfect

 nobody owes you
 the story you want
 to believe or the
 reason you need to
 wake up over again
 
 we are all just I
 waiting for the truths
 unforgiving friends
 decline to give or
 blind us from in error
 
 so listen to myths
 or walk in moonlight
 watch the water run
 through your fingers like
 misplaced rosary prayers
 
 balance on the arc
 and trust what I say
 that this is complete
 in its dissembling
 and honesty because

 it takes a rare pain
 to bring me to this
 plain confessional 
 table where I sit
 and look after the sun 
 
 watching distant stars
 stutter and occlude
 as kisses dissolve
 long after lights out
 and way past our bedtime 

Prizefighter

Ventriloquise your lust for blood through me,
a pound for every three of body weight
I only know the purse and wounded sleep
my flesh is rich and rippled
sustained on beef and porter
in my corner’s tavern

Ribcage, diaphragm, collarbone, jaw;
I articulate your weakness as I find,
test your empire’s strength on mine
chance your arm to lose an eye
a year’s worth of labour
wagered on my back

I laid out Tom the Greek in Taplow station yard
two hours, three minutes standing
trading blood and punches
like hands of cards where clubs lead hearts
until the pack divides
to patron’s diamond or sexton’s spade

Harder work than navvying Sonning,
darker than Kilsby tunnel,
I grab this chance of glory
with both bareknuckled hands
and leave a dead man’s teeth
on the cobbles, horseshit and straw