The Whitebait

This poem begins with a winter frost. Which is something that always has me thinking about climate change, what with the threat to this fair isle of the Atlantic conveyor shutting down and not bring us any more Caribbean heat. Though tbh, I’m more worried that the effects of catastrophic climate change might affect the importation of Walkerswood hot pepper sauce, but that’s because I like making jokes to deflect from scary things. And because I am super into that hot sauce. But, gags aside, it would seem that

This day black Omens threat the brightest Fair
That e’er deserv’d a watchful Spirit’s Care;
Some dire Disaster, or by Force, or Slight,
But what, or where, the Fates have wrapped in Night.

wouldn’t it? Except that this disaster ain’t been wrapped in no night. It’s right in front of our faces. The science seems to be as unanimous as it need to be for us to take heed. So that’s us b*gger*d. Or at least our kids are (on yer head, son!) I’m still interested, though, in exploring the narratives that we are using to frame our approaches and attitudes to the impending climate catastrophe: prediction that the world is about to end, check; that some or all of us can be saved if only we act better in our day-to-day lives, check; that those of us willing to make sacrifices will be able to live on, check. Hmmm. Remind you of anything? For me, this kind of repent or be damned thinking brings to mind Gerard’s mate, Paul. You know Paul, the one what

taught long that day.
He spoke of God the Father and His Son,
Of world made, marred, and mended, lost and won;
Of virtue and vice; but most (it seemed his sense)
He praised the lovely lot of continence

and it strikes me as funny that even though we may no longer feel that God in any way exists, we still revert to certain archetypal ways of thinking when trying to get our collective heads around impending disaster. This may be down to our inability to countenance the fact that we will die, and soon; that our very own apocalypse lies in wait, no matter what the weather. Or perhaps it’s more that

Dogmas tend to sniff other dogmas.
Then dogma joins dogma in heat.
This can happen on your own sofa
or in front of an entire street.

But this does all get me to wondering (a la Chris Morris) whether I am a good environmentalist or a bad one. For inkstains, I have a child, and another on the way. Me and my partner did this because we wanted our own kids to cuddle and there are those that would argue that this selfishness, this unnecessary adding to the carbon footprint of the sum total of humankind because we felt like it, is A Bad Thing. But we are planning on raising this child (or children) with the environment uppermost in their minds. So possibly come out evens on that score.

I don’t drive. Deffo a plus point. But I only don’t drive because I live in London and driving here’s a miserable, money-wasting waste of time. Can I even claim enviro-points for that?

As a family, our ‘footprint’ is quite light. But that’s only because we’re poor. (There’s only so many air miles you can rack up using Healthy Start vouchers.) Again, does doing sweet f.a. count as good? I reckon a concerned climate-scientist would probably say yes. Whereas a concerned climate-activist would probably tell me to get off my lazy arse more.

I work in a library. I am almost certain that there are far worse jobs I could be doing environment-wise, but is putting up another display of Climate Science books in the kids’ section really gonna save the world?

It would seem then that I am, if only just, a good environmentalist, but a completely ineffectual one, and this only by accident of circumstance. Hmmmm.

Though none of this really matters when it comes to my (or your) chances of being saved. What will count there will be an ability to tough it once our Glorious Capitalist Corporatist Consumer Society has folded.

And I think here it’s worth saying again that

If we go anywhere we’ll go together to meet what happens.
May-be we’ll be better off and blither, and learn something,
May-be it is really yourself ushering me to the true songs, (who knows?)
May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning — so now finally,
Good-bye — and hail! my fancy.

Ahem, quite. And further to this, what might be a good idea, while we’re still here, and while the lights are still on, is to attempt to mix what appears to be our innate urge to religiosity with an appreciation of the natural world. And then wield the resulting syncretism to emotionally cattle-prod everyone into not screwing up what’s left of the planet.

For it seems, to little old me at least, that we have been given a collective leash just long enough to hang ourselves with, and that

the heavens

have no fist,
or wouldn’t they have been
shaking it
for a thousand years now,

and even
longer than that,
at the dull, brutish
ways of mankind—

heaven’s own
Instead, such patience!



The Kingfisher’s Soul, by Robert Adamson

The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope

The Major Works, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Alternative Anthem, by John Agard

The Complete Poems, by Walt Whitman

Thirst, by Mary Oliver


The New Intelligence

This poem was on praccrit and turns out it’s about an imbalance of fluids in the inner ear.

It also turns out there can be something disappointing about being let in on the ‘real’ meaning of a poem, especially a poem as interesting as this one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that Ménière’s Syndrome is an awful affliction, so my apologies to Tim, but this explication is so banal I felt that, having been told it, I felt a bit like I’d discovered Superman just puts his pants over his trousers and gets held up by string.

Perhaps you should never ask someone what a poem is really about. I’d say it’s nearly always none of anyone else’s business. Not even in many ways the matey that made it. If I want to think that ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ is about trapped wind then that’s my reading of it. And long shall it prosper in the kingdom of my pretty little swede. Similarly, if I, say, want to believe that I am, in fact, the witty, vivacious, life and soul of every party I go to, then I’ll thank you not to point out otherwise.

Nobody likes a pooper.

The Cloud Corporation, by Timothy Donnelly

Collected Shorter Poems, by W. H. Auden




Ballybeg Priory

And here’s a poem from Bernard’s new collection, quoting the Bishop of Cloyne of 1705 in his lament that,

‘oxen and asses ruminate
under the shadows of the Austins’ church
at Ballybeg, the stone coffins of the monks
their watering troughs, and the tombs
where rest the bones of abbots are their byres’ .

What we leave behind us, eh? Here a priory; there, as old Percy’d have it, in the desert of what we once were. Perhaps there is little point in any of us yelling ‘oi mate, look on my works’ or carving onto stone messages that won’t last, going round erecting 57 foot statues and the like.

And this because everything, you, myself, those leaves in that tree, the tree, even that window you’re looking through, will pass. Even Facebook, Twitter, Google & Yahoo will slide into disuse one day, if they haven’t already this morning.

Perhaps the end of fame really is to fill a certain portion of uncertain paper. (Or screen space, to fully update.) As George went on to say, Cheops built the first pyramid and largest, thinking it was the thing to keep his memory whole, but now not a pinch of dust remains of old Cheops. Yup, truly, flesh = grass (which death mows down to hay). And your profile picture needs updating.

But we are something, as opposed to nothing, and therefore do not our fingerprints dent the whole hillside, mean the stream never runs the same course again? Jo thinks so, or at least says so in a poem, and I think so too. And, run with me here,  if like Robin reckons we are drawn to edges, to our own parapets and sea-walls, we may well end up, like Seamus, culminating within one another’s borders. Perhaps left with something as mute as Sylvia’s turnip in our collective ovens. Or something.

And, thanks be to science, this is an exclusively hetero-normative sport no longer. No siree. Though that leaves old Seamus’ conquest metaphor feeling rather baggy.  If not plain silly. Which it kind of was to start with. (We Seamus fans need not worry though, his legacy is safe!)

How about we stick with Carol, I think I will, and realise that time hates love, wants love poor, but love spins gold, gold, gold from straw. A love that’s perhaps piebald, skewbald, engrossed, unshorn and stumbling blindly by the remains of a ruined priory, but a love that’s still there with us in the field by the walls that go on crumbling.

Almost as if it’s the only thing that might survive us, eh Phil?


Jack’s been reading,

Bernard O’Donohue: The Seasons of Cullen Church

Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works

Lord Byron: The Major Works

Jo Shapcott: Of Mutability

Robin Robertson: Slow Air

Sylvia Plath: Ariel

Seamus Heaney: Opened Ground

Carol Anne Duffy: Rapture

Philip Larkin: The Whitsun Weddings



I do love a drug poem. Perhaps it’s the not taking them so much myself anymore, the vicarious thrill of watching someone else is getting caned, like when you notice a friend is sniffing hard or gurning and you fell that shiver up your spine.

‘Quaaludes’ by Matthew Caley opens with the lines ”Hey, Dude, / try these,’ she whispered’ and we are soon under the effects, under the ‘mud and then much more mud.’ This drugs battering us, leaving our heads spinning, waiting for the ‘knee-high tide’ to inexorably rise.

The details pile on, often disjointed. This is aided by every line ending with fuzzy ‘d’ rhymes: ‘crude’, ‘study’, ‘followed’, ‘head’ — the der, der, der of Quaalude intoxication, no doubt. Like many of the poems in Rake, Matthew’s fifth collection, this poem is interested in having us feel the effect of the subjective experience: what it is like to have happen to you, not what happened as such.

Here we have someone who, thinking they ‘kissed the mist of her head’, found only ‘Fog, a corrugated shed’. This experience of the fog of inebriation swirling around us, disorienting us, having us confuse things that we would normally know has the everyday becoming unrecognisable but still boringly normal.

‘Someone’ tells us that ‘Quakers are odd / but often underestimated. / Fly agaric grows where a mule has peed.’ and ‘America has internalised / its own notion of jihad.‘ and ‘David Markson was my recommended read. / Her pubic hair was braided‘. Is this the freewheeling internal voice of a person head-bent by a quinazolinone? The chatter at a party? The lady with the pills?

All we end up left with, and this will be an experience common to many who have indulged, are the ‘Dark stars, lit pinpoints, swallowed, / relished then rued’.

Rake, by Matthew Caley


I recently saw Jean read at the Wenlock Poetry Festival where she mentioned that she likes writing poems with birds in them. Here she gives us an unrhymed, loose lined sonnet that has birds in it, owls in this case, but here compared to cctv cameras whose ‘articulated necks / that tilt, cock and swivel’ do hold the weight of the comparison. These owl/cctv cameras aren’t threatening, after all they need to be ‘protected in cages or bulletproof housing’ and ‘are nothing without the database.’

But when it is revealed that

Thiers is the platfrom and the underpass, the building sit and the park gates,
the bridge, the bus stop, the school playground and the cash machine.

we begin to feel that these owls are not, perhaps, on our side. And when we are told that

Thiers is the shop doorway where you hope for darkness to cover you;
thiers is the scar on your hand and the make of your watch and your eyes.

We realise we have become possesed, indeed the very windows of our souls have been taken from us. We have been owned.

London Review of Books (available in Stoke Newington Library)


As a p.s. to this, you can hear me read the first and last lines of this poem from one of the pink telephones dotted around the Stoke Newington Literary Festival!

Soapstone Creek

Is anything as lovely as an alternate line rhyme in a lightly-worn iambic pentameter? I would say not. I should write more of them. Fortunately for me, I have in front of me a poem in which ‘[t]he creek sings all night long and all night long’. Ah, that rhythm! I could just squeeze it.

There is also an absence of full stops and capitals from the first two of five stanzas giving us the notion that the repeated ‘we’ is on a par with the creek, as one if you like. But, as we discover, ‘we’ are less than the creek: ‘Our deeds, / misdeeds, omissions too, make no more sense / than rattle-cries, flung where the kingfisher breeds.’

It is not like Mimi to leave us utterly hopeless though, and in the final stanza we are shown, [u]nder the alders’ canopy’, ‘understory trees’, ‘some grow accordingly.’

The Meanest Flower

Oi Frog!

Where does a lion sit? Or a seal?

Obvious isn’t it?

A lion sits on an iron.

And a seal sits on a wheel.

This is a cracking tale about conformity and the lengths some creatures will go to in order to not rock the boat. The cat (who, incidentally, sits on a mat) tells frog that he should ‘sit on a log’ but frog doesn’t want to. He complains that, ‘Logs are all nobbly and uncomfortable. And they can give you splinters in your bottom.’

So cat berates frog, telling him that, as a frog, he has to sit on a log, just like he, the cat, has to sit on a mat, gorillas must sit on pillars, weasels on easels and moles on their poles.

And cat is sure to remind frog that, ‘It’s not about being comfortable… It’s about doing the right thing.’ In this way cat makes clear that like a stork sat on a fork, or a lizard on a wizard or, even, a puma on its satsuma, what is important is not being happy in yourself and what you’re doing, but fitting in.

No matter how daft you end up looking.

Oi Frog!


In ‘Ashtrayville’, a poem from his cracking new collection The Blind Roadmaker (Picador:2016), Ian Duhig transports us into the world of the dream by way of a line borrowed from Anthony Thwaite: ‘Imagine a city. It is not a city you know’. And this poem reads like a dream (and no, not in that way) because very soon you find yourself in a world of ‘colourless rainbows’ and ‘pot holes… not open to negotiation’.

This mix of musicality with the inexplicable continues through the unrhymed quatrains that make up the rest of the poem. For instance, you are continually given information that you cannot really know, definitively, empirically, to be true, ‘deserted avenues of birdless trees’ and when ‘you walk down the centre of streets / till one chooses you, its second choice / you realise’. A combination of the second person with the realis mood unsettles – you’re given to asking how you can know these things, much like in a real dream (and let’s not go getting started on the concept of a ‘real’ dream).

It’s not until we meet the ‘man wearing black overalls’ who tells us he is ‘painting double yellow lines’ that things begin to get really dark, especially when, ‘You notice the paint in his pot is black.’

But none of this is as unsettling or as plain scary as the last line of the poem. I think I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself though.

The Blind Roadmaker

Lacan and the Limits of Language

And in this book there was an essay. And the essay was titled, ‘Telling Tales of Love: Philosophy, Literature and Psychoanalysis.’ by Charles Sheperdson. And it’s largely about Julia Kristeva’s book Tales of Love, within which she goes getting to grips with the myth-kitty in a chapter called, ‘Narcissism: A New Insanity’.

Anyway, what old Charles says in his essay is that we do not remember, culturally or as a species, the first ever ego. We’ve just seem to have popped into existence, fully ego’d up like. And this links into when old Freudy started going on about us wanting to kill our dads (which I’ve always had trouble with coz I get on quite well with my old man). But see, he wasn’t saying that we actually want to kill our dads, more that there is a trauma here linked to thinking of ourselves as ourselves and not just a part of the savanna (our, like, cosmic dad) and that this event’s ‘trauma repeats because it was never experienced in the first place’ – the one doing the experiencing not really there as they had only just come into being themselves, as it were. Tbh, the whole shebang’s a patriarchal cock-up to begin with which is why it doesn’t make much sense. But I think the idea that we come into awareness without ever really being aware of that ‘coming into’ is an interesting idea.

In this way are we not always perhaps looking at our children and worrying that they are too narcissistic (tinder, snapchat, flares, drugs, rock & roll) because perhaps as a species and as individuals we never quite get used to the fact that we have egos, and so transfer this uneasiness onto our kids having never accepted it within ourselves.

Or something.

Lacan and the Limits of Language