Old poems

These are poems from twenty or so years back. Having recently watched the film Paterson in which the hero’s wife urges him to type his poems; he doesn’t; and they get ripped to shreds by the dog while he’s out for the evening, I decided to take seriously the message about typing your poems. So here they are for what they’re worth.



We are not poor so much as short of cash;

We walk up through the the grass, heavy with dew

And last night’s mushrooms; catch the distant view

Of church and bells. We still can cut a dash

At Florian’s or the Grand Bar des Sports.

We lie awake at dawn and hear the rain,

Watch quiz-shows, book the cut-price aeroplane,

Then walk down the long freezing corridor.

Yet when the cash-dispenser turns us down

Or in the Allée Paul-Riquet café

The waitress spurns our card, or when the brown

Envelope from the bank destroys our day,

We shrink, forget and lose the open sky

Heat’s ease, desire and warmth of company.


[From internal evidence this sonnet dates from 2000-2005, I think; a bit more head-scratching could recall the date when I got turned down in the Allées Paul-Riquet, I know which cafe it was, but why bother? As for Florian’s it’s always been out of my league and the mention is mere showing off. There are two versions of the sestet, I think this is the better but it still could be improved.]


Dear All:  This is a note to say

We’ve put the house on sale today.

Foxton’s  have come and named a price

Of which they’ll take a tidy slice.

Beauty it has, we must concede;

But comfort’s really what we need.

We’re getting older, feebler too;

We’d rather move to somewhere new.

We know you’d rather we stayed on

Till all our health and wits are gone

Nursing our frail decrepit bones

In this great pile of yellow stones.

[This fragment, clearly from 2009, cries out for completion, and will get it. As my mind is still on buying and selling houses, I should return to it.]


Surely it’s here today

the longed-for change

the wind still beats outside

but yesterday

I cut the grass, you scored, we giggled

and on Sunday

I dreamed of my father.

Hope is not things themselves

Hope is a trick of arranging

in a convincing pattern

Hope is today

I am writing an enormous book

Or very soon; just now I am wondering

how you travel to Antioch

Is it still called Antioch?

I have time and hope enough

To find out, book tickets, go with you

Hope is

Absurd, given all the rest. I like it.


[This is unique in been precisely dated 7/3/02. I suppose just before I visited Syria (I’d have known where Antioch was after). ‘you scored’ must be in the classic sense of purchased marijuana; I’m surprised that I found some in 2002, given where I was.]

Shock Therapy

Strange land, wide skies, full moon. No plug in the sink

No postcard. But this evening I can walk

Along the Volga, hear mosquitoes, think

Of you. Bicycles pass, I plan my talk.

In the green nuclear village it grows dark.

Five thousand roubles and I’ll hear your voice

Or eat a stroganoff. Talk’s of the quark.

Of dreams of Stockholm, dollars, Russia’s Choice –

‘It’s past repair, the Mafia own it all – ‘

The great boats, Chernyshevsky, Lenin, sail

Downriver. – ‘Put my poster on your wall

Please, in your institute’. And in her pail

Full speed across the sky past the full moon

Rides Baba-Yaga sweeping with her broom.

[This is probably the earliest piece, dating from a visit to a conference at the nuclear physics institute at Dubna in 1995. An amazing place, but I’ll let the piece speak for itself about how Russia was in the mid-90s. The Volga, as I imply, is breathtaking in being completely huge so far from the sea. The physicists are naturally all hoping to get to Stockholm.]

Two for James:

I. We think he can get a D

I’m standing in the stream, flat pebbles

The depth, my yellow rod measures it, six centimetres

The truth is running past my feet

Faster than I can note it in my book.


Learning, another country. What’s three sixths?

Why’s Lennie worried? I want to help you.

My questions, ghosts, the universe

Are on the other shore of some divide.


Yet here midstream, with soaking shoes

My rod, book, pencil bridge it. A gap’s opened

I’ll skate through it, text:

C u tonite


I ran out, skated down, and then

my feet flew up, and above the sky, wheeling

shone bright and turned round in amazement. Then

oh then, blankness, voices, bells and the darkness

of a journey not my own. Strapped, tied, wheeled and lifted

scanned and injected. Don’t do that, it hurts.

It hurts anyway. And now here am I

eyes half shut, sleeping more than waking

with only the memory of the leaping moment.

[Written, I think, in hospital in the weeks after James’ accident (2004)]




Darling – While you were gone you’ll find I’ve changed

the fitted sheets on ours and James’ beds;

Watched Simon Schama’s discourse as it ranged

Over queens, reformation, loss of heads. Dug up the bean-patch, eyed the artichokes,

Ate, washed up, ate more, borrowed books from blokes –

Wondering, will the circus ever stop?

And then I thought of you. Where are you now?

Crossing the South on Railtrack’s leaf-clogged rails;

Where are we heading? What’s for supper? How

Shall we survive storms, power-cuts, earthquakes, gales?

How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

Let’s give the whole thing up and go to France.

[I consider formally my best sonnet, except perhaps the French one (later); in having a proper division of subject at the break, and a nice couplet to round it off. OK, I’ve never mastered a proper (non-shakespearean) one, I suppose there’s time. Date is again early 2000’s.]


Macheath has a knife, and so does Martin.

Macheath’s uses for it

Surprise Martin, who sharpens his blade, ready to hand

in his daily concernful dealings

to carve chicken or shape wood on a bench; to cut throats is hardly a project.


The tanks go down the road past Martin’s farm

Macheath is long hanged. Now

the call of history is heard. Martin’s students

listen, go out authentic

kill or are killed or organise train timetables

The knife is carving up Europe; this is modernity.

Martin is a great philosopher

Macheath a small-time crook.


The house

The house is doorless now, the wins blows through

Strange openings. As I walk

Lintels hang over me, and at my sides

The beading climbs like creepers


Grass-widowed, the hinges wait

For the stripped doors, their partners

Returning, to be bound to them once more

With the slow comfortable screws.


I keep open house, flaneur of these

Impromptu streets, pick up rags, earn scraps

Time waits for me round every corner, passing

I waste him.

[This relates to no event, and I can’t think where it comes from – unusually inventive and untypical down to the joke about the screws. A puzzle.]

For Thomas and BJ (among others)

You came in March, breathless; the house was cold.

You welcomed us, we walked the cliffs together

Watching the gulls, we failed to wonder whether

We’d all return. And here we are; but old

Age dimmed you to those photographs we hoard;

The memories of porridge on the lawn;

Trollope at evening, and your cough at dawn –

Which now I imitate. The house, restored

We can revisit, but no cheque will buy

New presence, or new memories of you.

We watch, like you remember and await

New life. We see the thrift, we sit;; ask why

Or when the things that happen come. Renew

For us this bay, this spring; we’ll keep our date.

[Another precisely dated one – 22/3/02. A week in a house on the north Cornish coast which was indeed seriously cold, which we’d visited in the seventies with my father and his then girlfriend ‘BJ’. Thrift means the seaside plant.]

Haiku (not really)

Strong hands can crack hard almonds

But I, an old horse

Drag heavy loads up the hill

Faits divers

To hold in one vision: the thin cyclist

on the phone, angry, riding past the hospital gates

the blonde in the sports car, the great catalpa tree

A little later the blonde stands by the roadside

The ambulance will come for the inattentive cyclist;

Look, it’s leaving the hospital now. In the next estate

The child picks up her book bag and leaves the minder.

She passes the great catalpa and looks with wonder

At the neglected graveyard. She’s going home

With her mother, who works at the hospital, and who knows

Nothing of what has happened.

[I don’t know what I was after here, obviously you shouldn’t phone while you’re on a bike. It seems a bit pretentious, but I can’t help that.]

Languedoc: I

Late August, flickering lightning

orange in the pine-trees, having my toenails cut

a few heavy raindrops wet the towels

hanging to dry as we watch. The smell of cheese

is strong, the little owl is calling.

This is us in France, all this I must remember

the darkness, the almost heat, the breeze

the rumble of thunder, the itching on my legs

and the boy at play somewhere far off below.


sideways along the oaktrees sideways above

the I think pointy mountain I think I see

the it’s perhaps too hot today it’s much too hot

yesterday it’s perhaps tomorrow it’s perhaps

too hot the road is too long to windy too many

bends in it I can’t perhaps above sideways I can’t

always ever see the it’s a mountain it’s perhaps

ever the road if you if I get my meaning

it wasn’t always but right now it’s too hot

[Ezra Pound deleted a lot of uses of ‘perhaps’ from ‘The Waste Land’ and it might have been helpful if he’d been to have here; I suppose the idea was that your use of language deteriorates under extreme heat. There might be a better way of conveying it.]

III. Modernism

Provence, a mountain: fruit, triangles, squares;

or Montparnasse, opium, Japan, Tahiti

or hardness, a refusal, a distrust of adjectives

an uncertainty or a certainty about something

not yet arrived, like love, or the kingdom of God

At least an aspiration, complete acceptance

of the bird, the dirty feet, the long journey without

(something), I never could quit see the point

(he said)



The wide straight road

diesel and headlight

the city’s bleak edge

We wander aimless

through dark streets seeking

a lucky tangent

In asphalt and scrub

grass round the hotel

to break the circle

A few lights twinkle

Bar. Farmacía

Business in silence

Always the hotel

shines lights on the road

Always we’re lost.

Dark zone, suspended

concrete, meaningless

this too is world

[Impressive as a sequence of five-syllable lines if for no other reason.]


And if in a moment of freedom we took the dark highway

in the hired Fiesta, driven by the city’s rush hour

(somewhere in the hotel a child is crying)

and reached, becalmed, the gridlocked motorway sliproad

we would turn back past the miles of housing, past Lidl

and Burger King, past the radio shops and the arcades

of sofas and, back in our room, watch the rolling news

where, always elsewhere, outside the quiet city

are death,terror, starvation and paranoia

while just outside a man can die in the doorstep

and neve be heard or noticed.



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