Archive for the ‘Poems (mine)’ Category

The Narrow Road to the Far North

08/04/2018

When the doors of perception are cleansed
Man will see things as they truly are – infinite

(William Blake)

Voices piercing
by the sliding door –
Autumn wind.

(Matsuo Basho)

I heard and tasted the sea long before I saw it. Over the railway crossing with its brief whiff of oil, then the smell of seaweed hit me. I still couldn’t see the sea, the hammering waves were now a close boom. A short descent, a pile of lobster pots against the side of a hut, and there was the grey-blue heaving mass of the North Sea. Breakers crashed and smashed into rocks, hurling clouds of spray skywards. I tasted the sharp cocktail of salt, ozone and seaweed and drank deeply and gratefully of it. Along a narrow spit of rock ringed plovers pecked amongst the bladderwrack and kelp. I wondered how long it would be before the sea submerged it as it roared into the mouth of the Brora River.

The Beach at Brora

Brora

I looked past the estuary to the dunes beyond, and fading into the distance, the dark blue of the northward bound coast. A subtle change in colour marked Helmsdale and its river meeting the sea. I was heading that way tomorrow, and the anticipation was already welling inside me. I remembered previous visits, passing through on the train, where the railway takes a great swing inland to avoid the cliffs, climbing out of the strath up into the bleak heather and bracken of the Flow Country. And tomorrow I was heading that way again.

A day of slate grey clouds and heavy rain greeted me. The dark sea foamed and churned in the sharp wind. Sudden squalls rocked the car as I turned inland at Helmsdale. Though an “A” road, it was little better than a potholed lane, the tarmac wearing the look of something that has endured years of harsh weather and while not beaten was just about clinging on. Parallel to the railway but separated by the river, a train obligingly marked the route as it headed on its long southward trundle to Inverness.

As I passed from Strath Ullie into the Strath of Kildonan, the rain slashed down heavier than ever.

Kildonan –
Rain hammers car roof,
Logging lorries pass.

A897 near Kildonan

Baby trees when I first came were now mature. I wondered if the logs were from trees planted to give rich southerners a tax break in the 1980s. A tax break that dried out the bogs and seriously damaged a unique environment, the Flow Country. Profits for folks far distant from here. Out of sight, out of mind, ignorance was bliss as long as in that dawn their wallets were filled.

At Kinbrace road and rail were next to each other. Past Loch an Rhuthair, and a polished stone welcomed me to Mackay Country: Failte Dùthaich MhicAoidh. My Scottish grandmother (née Mackie) always said she was descended from the Mackays, so perhaps I was in some sense, home. What I’d seen from the train thirty years ago is fixed in my mind with little needed to bring it into the full colour spectacle of memory. A photograph, taken from the train window near Kildonan became an ikon of that journey, and has remained so.

On the train near Kildonan in 1988

I stopped at Forsinard station for a leg stretch. On a previous visit, I’d taken the train up here from Helmsdale. As I got off, the guard said “bet you wish you’d not got off eh?” Quite the reverse. As the train’s sound faded, a deep silence descended. There was little here: the station, road, a few houses and a hotel. And me. At the hotel, I was amused to see a Port Vale FC scarf slung over the bar (I then lived not far from their ground), and to be greeted with “yes duck, what can I get you?” from the landlady.

Forsinard station

Today, the place looked shut up. But there was now a nature reserve where the RSPB were trying to restore some of the damage caused by forestry. There was a footpath for ten miles across the empty bog to the roadless station at Altnabreac. Perhaps next time…

On into Halladale. I’d left the mountains behind now and entered moorland. The land was mostly tough grass with some bracken and heather, punctuated occasionally by small bits of cultivation. A tough life farming up here, I thought, recalling how the lands had been forcibly cleared in the nineteenth century to make way for sheep. To live [here] is to be conscious/At dusk of the spilled blood/That went into the making of the wild sky/Dyeing the immaculate rivers (RS Thomas, Welsh Landscape).

After 40 miles of twisting narrow road, I reached the north coast at Melvich. I saw a sign for a beach, so followed it down the rough, unmade lane. A short walk through the dunes, my zipped cagoule immediately inflated by the wind, onto golden sands; wonderful and deserted.

Atlantic breakers
Over my sandy boots,
Let it rain!

I couldn’t have been happier standing there, even as the rain streamed off my coat and soaked my trousers.

A sudden squall
Curtaining the beach,
My soaking clothes.

I headed further west along the coast, glad to be on a decent road. A steep drop through rocky cliffs into Bettyhill – named after a countess of Sutherland, who deserved no such honour after her role in the local clearances. Sharp-peaked mountains rose in the distance, after miles of moors. The blue-grey remembered mountains I’d first seen twenty years ago. I recalled my disappointment that we turned south and away from them. Not today though. I drove past the road previously travelled by and continued west, with joy in my heart.

These were real mountains, rising sharply and sheerly with jagged peaks that would not have looked out of place in Middle Earth. Questing travellers, knights riding to rescue maidens, messengers with parchments sealed in heavy wax… The rain was finally easing and as I drove into Tongue, it had stopped and the looming mountain had resolved into the multi-peaked Ben Loyal. I stopped for fuel at an old fashioned filling station where I had to ring a bell for someone to come and put the petrol in for me. While I waited, I had my first encounter with the dreaded Scottish midges as a cloud appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, (how do they do that?!) and went into full attack. I dived back into the car and slammed the door, cursing the wind, which having been faithfully present all day had now deserted me.

Near Tongue

Eventually, an old lady emerged and fuelled the car with some reluctance. She scowled as she took my money and was even more reluctant to give me my change. I’d wondered about getting some sandwiches, but she deserved no more of my money. Not quite the Basil Fawlty School of customer service – she hadn’t uttered a single word, nor even a grunt – but deserving of a dishonourable mention.

I’d stayed in Tongue Youth Hostel on a previous visit. One evening, I noticed the sunset and went outside. It was 1030pm, the western sky suffused with a deepening gold, which was perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Kyle of Tongue. The pungent tang of seaweed wafted up, a curlew trilled from the darkness below and a seal splashed its head above the water. Looking south, the water mirrored the mountains: the jagged peaks of Ben Loyal and the smoother Ben Hope, all the shades of rock and grass reflected there. I stood, transfixed by the quiet perfection of the scene. Well, near perfection: the lack of wind brought out the midges and they quickly made their presence felt. Such are the joys of the Far North…

As I drove over the causeway across the Kyle and headed further west, the clouds returned with squally showers.

Slow for a bend,
Road drops faster than my jaw –
Loch Eriboll.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

Near Loch Eriboll

There it was. I’d seen it before, but I still gasped in wonder. A wide, nine mile long sea loch, that just appears, unexpected and amazing. Below a small island joined to the mainland by a thin spit of shingle, dotted with the ruins of an old lime works. The road fell and drew level with the water. As it reached the base of the loch and turned, there was a rainbow over the hill.

Loch Eriboll

Grey clouds crack,
A peep of sunlight stabs
My eyes – what joy!

And so to Durness, an Old Norse word meaning “wolf’s cape”. It was good to be back. The object of my first solo journey, reached after three hours on the post bus from Lairg, bumping and swerving along the 56 miles of single track road. The weather was filthy, and after leaving the Youth Hostel in the morning, I spent days walking round in waterproofs, sheltering where I could: behind walls, in the White Heather café, in the pub, until the Youth Hostel reopened at 5pm. But now, miraculously, the sun came out. I parked and followed the steps down the cliffs to the rocky beach and into Smoo cave. I was awed by it the first time, and it still impresses. The great arched space with a little brook – the Allt Smoo – flowing out of it. A wooden bridge leads to the flooded inner chamber into which the brook cataracts with a wonderful gushing roar from a sinkhole above. It was thundering in, throwing clouds of drenching spray back onto the bridge. I stood there for several minutes, watching, listening to this wonderful spectacle. There were a few others about, but I was easily able to shut them out and the place became mine. I was it and it was me.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

A short video of the waterfall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCns-aziwT4&feature=youtu.be

The last stage of the journey took me south out of Durness. I passed the road to Cape Wrath (pronounced “rath”, nothing to do with anger, an Old Norse word for “turning point”) then the road followed the Kyle inland for several miles. The Kyle became the Dionard River which soon left the road and vanished into the heather and moss towards the rearing mountains of Beinn Spionnadh and Cranstackie. These swept up steeply to plateau like summits, sliced with frequent shining rills and cascades.

Kyle of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

After a few miles, I reached Rhiconich. The hotel was to be my base for the next few days, and my room gave views down Loch Inchard. Since my first visit, the road had been diverted onto a new wider road for the few miles down to Laxford Bridge. The old narrow road now led to a few cottages and was part of the hotel car park. After dinner, I walked a short way down it to the old stone bridge over the Rhiconich River. I looked along the narrow valley to the peak at Arkle, which reminded me of a volcano…

View from the hotel window, Rhiconich

old road bridge, Rhiconich

View of Arkle and Rhiconich River

I suddenly felt every one of the 500 miles to home. And the distance delighted me. Concerns, anxieties, all that gently fell away, and a calm sense of perspective moved in. My sense of wonder was fully engaged and would receive further stimulation over the next two days of exploring. I’d arrived. And it was wonderful.

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The People Person

08/07/2017

I’ve come to know too well
The modern boss, the people person:
The always open door,
The fake friendliness,
The politician’s smile,
The sharpened knife concealed
Until you turn your back.

The people person, yes,
Who knock people down
To use as steps to speed them
Up the greasy path,
Or cross water bridged
Only by the drowning,
Oh yes, I know the people person.

They know all the talk,
The right yarns to spin,
To fair recruit lovers and friends
Into jobs, bend rules
To sack those they dislike,
And bury those who complain
In sickness and ill-health.

Every day they polish
A halo no one else can see
As up up they go,
Up, ever up to the top,
Spotless, Teflon, Untouchable.
Watch out God,
The People People are coming.

Swansea Bay

08/07/2017

Night, and the Devon coast has faded
After sunset made opening closing windows
Flash gold across the miles
Across the border,
Across the sea.
A neon night, headlamps searchlight
All along the Mumbles road,
That wind sweeps sand
Where trams and trains used to go.
A neon night, clouds throb orange,
A blast furnace mirror over the bay,
Volcanic pulses counterpointing
The lighthouse flashes on their rock.
Night, and here the dark
A coat that snugly hugs,
One I once knew well, then put aside,
Now rescued
From the back of the wardrobe and
Gladly worn again.
Beyond traffic, waves roll,
Wash sand seaweed and oyster shells,
Like the one I found last time
And keep on the window ledge,
That even through dust
Carries a whiff of salt
Fifty miles inland.

For Thu-Van

24/06/2017

I’m not going to scream
Or tear my clothes
(I’m far too British anyway)
But simply say
“I can’t believe you’re gone”.
I don’t know how or why,
Especially why…
You’re gone, but you are.
And I can’t believe it.
I remember
Giving you lifts to work
Or waiting with you for the bus
As a wren sang in the trees above.
And the conversations,
How we sorted out the world…
Rain drops in the river now
That flows into the sea,
Evaporates to fall as rain again tomorrow.
I’m not going to scream
Though I want to,
I’ll listen for the rain,
Think of you there,
Your gentle voice amongst
The rustling leaves
As the wren sings in the trees.

Raining Again

05/06/2017

It’s raining again, and raining hard,
Late August, and for once the building’s quiet.
I sit beside the open window,
Listen to rain pattering plastic windowsills
And imagine I’m back at Grandma’s house,
In a comfy chair by the picture window
Looking out at the wet green garden.

In winter, the fruit trees bare,
Rattling bones on each other,
Spring, wind blown blossoms
Snow confetti round the greenhouse,
Summer, the borders awash with colours
Brighter than a child’s painting,
Autumn, the leaf litter swirling,
Crunching underfoot.

All the effort they put in
Mowing, planting, pruning, weeding
(How did they ever have time to go to work?)
Worth every ache and pain
To create this small city Eden.

So I drink deeply of the rain soaked air and
Remember, remember that house, that garden
Of long childhood summers
That were never quite long enough,
A house forever more home than home,
A house that always comes to mind
Whenever rain tap taps on PVC.

2006

Remembering Hafnarfjörður

30/04/2017

Clouds swallow the moon,
A moon I last saw in Iceland
One chill morning as I waited for the bus.
It set behind Hamarinn –
Which I’d climbed on the first day –
So I had just a few stars and
A flickering streetlight for company;
Beyond, the velvet water of the harbour,
A trawler and the breakwater light.
The blossoms will be out at home,
I thought, but I’d rather be here
Though my feet were numbing,
And I still would, I think
As I set off for work
Under the now moonless sky.

To A Grieving Friend

09/11/2016

How can I grasp this
Beyond the obvious?
What to say, besides “I’m sorry”?

How do I unglue
My labyrinthed tongue and
Exceed the usual worn out words?

I could try the words of others:
Frye, Rosetti, Dylan Thomas,
Perhaps they can say it better than I.

Yes, I’ll offer their words instead.
And I’ll offer my shoulder,
My arms or perhaps just my ears,

Tuned and ready to listen.

Crossing The Usk

05/06/2016

Crossing the Usk, a slow flow of mud,
Water rippling in the rain,
I’m going home, the train engine
Roars louder as it climbs through Caerleon.
Is it home? It feels alien now,
Familiar, but not home,
Not that cosy, sad, untidy place
Of long known stuff and clutter
To return to in stormy weather.
Sure, the room’s the same,
The stuff the same, even the clutter,
But somehow home no longer.
Have the recent storms blown it down?
When did it cease to be safe?
I cannot answer that, and
Should the train stop
And retrace its route,
I would not be sorry
(Though what would I tell the boss
When I didn’t show up for work tomorrow?)
Return to a place that, as a youngster,
I couldn’t wait to flee.
Nantyderry, and the sky clears,
A hint of rainbow
Between grey cumulus.
The old dears opposite crack open the wine,
Hey, pour me a glass, perhaps
That will clear the fog,
Light the way to answers.
Fix headphones
(They don’t like it up ‘em you know)
Shut out the boring conversations,
Thud of music, annoying ringtones.
Abergavenny, and rain returns
With renewed roaring violence
As more miles are eaten up,
Forever closer to the cluttered room
– Perhaps I should call it my cell –
Something to be avoided,
A reason to be discovered
But all I can see are question marks,
Thick, black and growing fatter by the minute,
Smiling the rictus grin of a madman.
Llanvihangel, the summit of the line,
And down the train races, faster
And faster, clouds smoking
Round the mountainsides,
I’d like to be among those empty hills.
Fields of yellow stubble
Catch the odd sunbeam to escape
Clouds’ grey grip, and briefly glow,
A field of gold, light that bathes me too.
Today and yesterday, to see again
Places known from years ago,
I felt happy (yes, happy, there
Of all places), no pain now,
The reason I was so quick to flee
Can’t hurt me any more.
And though I head back to certainty –
The flat, the clutter and daily routine –
It’s no longer cosy certainty.
I want that cosiness back,
Want the firm door slam
That shuts out the world –
No, just fuck off –
Dinmore, and at last the sun is free,
Glittering lake so bright
My eyes hurt, a sudden floodlight
Into a long shuttered room.
Let me keep this, all of it,
The rain, the clouds and muddy Usk,
Even the dead oak alone
In the field near Craven Arms,
Brittle fingers reaching skyward.
Let me reach skyward too, keep
This bright-gentle light around me,
Warm me when back amongst the clutter
And dust, that would dull the blade.
You can never leave yourself behind, but
This journey will still be here, and
I can make it whenever I want,
Without leaving the flat.

Written on a Cardiff – Crewe train, July 2006

Spring

28/04/2016

The trees are surrendering
Their nakedness.
Blossom-heavy, ready to speak
Sheaves of green
And strew my path my wedding white.
In the grey damp of winter
I forget all this, can think
Only of short days, long nights
Scarf and glove wrapped;
As when in full leaf
Ringing with the birds’ full chorale
I’ll forget the undressed trees
And the grey silent air.
I’m pleased to stand here
In gentle amnesia.

The Hardest Word

14/11/2015

The song says
Sorry seems to be the hardest word,
But on days like this
It’s the one most needed and
The most inadequate.
It’s the only word I can offer
Though I know it won’t,
Can’t fill the void created,
Ease the pain
Or dry the tears,
I know this, but
It’s still the only word,
And I’m sorry,
So I step back with head bowed
And lay it, gently,
As a flower on a stone.


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