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Prize Poems

'At the Ossuary' won Second Prize
in the Envoi 119 International Poetry Competition.

At the Ossuary

They make you
an unwanted comic
as they grin from their rows,
some laughing with jaws,
some without.

All out of kilter,
all out of joint,
in a communal bone pool
they share at last
without jostling, jeering.

Here war ends;
lust too becomes a rattle,
a search for lost femurs
in the osseous orgy,
whisper of dust.

Do they dance at midnight,
reassemble and dance
under the phosphorous moon,
the bankers and butchers,
the harlots and housewives?

Dance across
the parquet of graves
a creaking waltz,
a tango slow as time,
their passions distilled

to a residue of atoms
where memories
like encoded dice
wait to be tossed
for the game to begin again.

Don't judge,
they say,
you there staring in
encumbered with eyes -
Brother Sister
Come lie with us

'Driftwood' won
The Edmund Blunden Memorial Prize
of the International Poetry Society.


Three days of rain and the river is
Rising fast; a tree-trunk squats in the centre
Like an Archimedes musing in his bath.
On the banks the waves crack driftwood knuckles
And suck and suck on the cement path.
No old women collect firewood anymore,
Prodding about cowled, spying, bent with
Burlap sacks slung bulging over shoulders
To haul it home and stoke their greedy stoves.
It is burned now as rubbish or flung back,
The wood slick as intestines where pigeons
Rest and startle into wheezes of flight.
I come here every day to watch it pile;
The ducks, bobbing high, surprise, paddle off
At my approach, are caught in a downstream
Eddy and become a carousel.
A man leaning on his rake tends a fire,
The monument of flames and ashes to smoke;
The wind gossips over backyard fences.
When a boy I used to collect driftwood,
Looking for gnome grimaces there or guns,
A buccaneer's with knobs for triggers,
Stone bullets – it all wound up in my room.
What worlds in that wood and all from upstream,
Distant rampages of elements
Cutting down the lark's perch and the owl's.
Once a dead pig came bowling along, its
Trotters stiff, its belly roast-bloated,
The snout rooting water, ranging in mud.
We dragged it shouting ashore and attacked
Giggling in fright the deadness with sticks.
Now picking my way along the littered path,
Careful not to soil my trousers, I still
Occasionally see a face in that wood,
No longer monstrous but daily, or gnarled
Pairs coupling: life vies with fantasy.
But the driftwood I pick comes from upstream,
The mind's, though the storms ranging there grow few,
And the glimpses of debris far-between,
The forest secret, hidden as ever.
Suddenly with a heave the tree-trunk breaks
From its brief snag and plunges away,
Roots grasping the air, to the end and beyond
Spreading grey and choppy, past city and sewer
I watch its blind “eureka” disappear.
It is raining again; great drops spatter
And hiss on flocculent ash of the fire;
The rivers swells, angrily clattering the wood.
I rush back to my room, to warmth, to books.

'Byron's Mask' was selected by
the poet & Novelist Tobias Hill
for the Guardian Online Workshop.

Byron's Mask

Worn at a Ravenna carnival in 1820.

Lying in a museum case like a Mesolithic skull,
the sockets brim with the memory of a palazzo –
you staring out of the window,
a curl of rakish lip behind the wax mouth,
breathless in breath, molded cheeks bolstering
features, sinews of string entangling
neck as you spiral down the staircase
and like a thief join the revellers in the piazza,
dancing a clump-foot jig, sidling with lust.

Later, under the nodding head of the old count,
you take his young wife in strict adultery,
not letting the mask slip even once.

New Poems

In the Steppes

I enter your hospital room on a drowsy afternoon;
you lie in bed, sunlight ministering your sleeping face.
Hardly daring to speak, I watch your hands
folded like lotus petals, and then your startled look
as you wake and smile, exclaiming, "Mon Dieu,
what’s happened to me? Not long ago I puffed
Gaulloises bleu and discoursed half the night
on philosophy. Now I am dying of this cancer."

You’re neither friend nor father, but father of a friend,
and I’ve come to say goodbye while listening as you
tell of a journey to Mongolia, how you crossed the steppes
on an unruly steed to the ancient city of Karakorum
where the palace of Genghis Khan lies in ruins,
the fabled palace with jade-green floors and blood-red roofs...
While you ramble, I think about your body, how the cells
spin like the arrows of a defeated army, falling on barren soil.

You shift in the bed and, with great effort, raise your head;
I move my ear to your lips and listen: "No one knows
where the Mighty Ruler is buried. The site has remained secret
all these centuries; whoever saw the funeral procession
pass was slain on the spot and all the attending
servants and soldiers were massacred at the tomb."
Then you drop back on the pillow, stare at
the window, at the shadows mottling distant clouds.

The door opens and a nurse enters to announce
she will have to take a sample of your blood at three.
I prepare to leave when you reach for my hand.
"She’s the loveliest girl," you whisper, pressing it.
"And when she looks at me her eyes are like
pools in the Gobi Desert and her smell like those
wild forget-me-nots blossoming in spring from
the cracks of the palace of Genghis Khan!"

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