Shadow Dancing

The poems included below were largely written between 2014 and 2016, although the oldest piece was written around 2004 and the most recent in 2021. The sketches capture family and places, particularly the west of Ireland, Scotland, and around Sheffield. They reflect both internal struggles and the external setting – terrorism, migration and Brexit. ‘On Carrownisky’ was rather accidentally published in the journal Agenda.

Poems are copyright, please contact me with any enquiries.

With you / / I am bathed in brilliant light / I am covered by sweet water / I lie on soft grass in warm sun. / / You are the burning fire in / freezing winter dusk, you are snow / falling between lamplit trees. / / You magnify senses, so / the air becomes thick, scented / as after a sudden rain / or smoke in the still, grey, morning. / / Without you / I am all these things but singly; / light, or grass, or winter air. / Your gift is these adjectives / and the making of them true.

Landfall / / Red-eyed from Philly / woken by sun spearing / prematurely off the wing / / looking down, the self-same sun / lies shattered glassily across Clew / Bay, blunted against the Reek’s / sharp quartzite dome / / slipping softly up to Delphi, a / gifted vision of an / unregarded other life / like a postcard written / / from another me / chasing an already / empty aircraft home.

Pilgrim /  / Stretching strange limbs on the hard / sharp rock of Ireland personified in grey stone / pyramidal sharp against my back’s soft / bones on Patrick’s bed. / / We climbed at dawn / over the top of the station’s shoulder / wanting to find the place our own. / / But the masses had already come / in stiffening, mounting sun.

Setting bulbs / / He cuts a lonely figure there, stooped over / the rough, pregnant-seeming sack, trowel in hand, / among the cutting-driven willows on the / bank. Despite the stiffening wind, this land / grows lustily, over-eager, offering up / returns on labour, dense and rich. / / And so he plants, bent low / beneath the trees he planted too, sheltered / from the breeze by others brought from Tully / more than children’s lives ago. Those saplings, / once just refugees from richer townlands, have / established here like natives. Hosts / / for offspring of their own, they self-sustain. / And still he plants, his nodding, dipping back / imagining the full-grown, gold-full daffodils / which mark each turning year again.

Aisir Mhor / / Perihelion. A sharp wind, fanned / by stooping gannet-wings, cuts in half / the beach. Just one man, a tanned / foreigner, all angles, sinewy calves / and determination, eyes / / up the chopping waves. Midsummer passed / by months ago, fire-summoned, scorching / middens scratched in the coarse-grassed / dunes. Now is the true year’s turning, watching / for fin whales and the few / / shore-stilled guillemots. Tonight, among / the wrack of cloud, a comet lays its trail / in dust. All this time we’ve swung / unquestioning towards one end. I fail / to comprehend: arriving, it’s already gone.

Rivelin / / Fleet-footed, hand in hand we run / through grated leaf-light falling / where we will not fall, the sun- / scented woody soil exhaling / / the breath of summer’s dog days / as we pass. Your hand is so small / in mine and our unbalanced pace / scatters your careless weight. All / / this I give to you, my fine-spun / child who, looking down, has found / her measure here, already one / with the day, the air and the ground. / / Your open, unworn face already sees / beyond this Pale, beyond these / ripe, exhausted trees.

Not Adlestrop / / The northern train / stopped, wontedly or / not, in Edale. / / Overshot the station, / hills surrounding flattened / under heavy rain. / / The diesel’s grumble / and the deadpan / moan of air-con / / smothered any other / sound. Only a / baby cried. Outside / / the wind might / blow, and unseen / birds have sung / / for other travellers / in different trains.

Bat music / / October, dusk and / brushing through leaf-litter / we talked of poets, dead / and living. The children / / ran ahead, light feet / splashing dark puddles / and radiating sound / along the sharp bright beams / / of torches. Where do / the poems come from, some- / one asked. You smiled. They’re / out here, waiting. Listen: / / there, above us all, / were bats, dancing like thoughts / uncaptured, nebulous / and flickering as dreams.

Green belt / / When I go deaf, pray do not blind me / to the sounds of things: the pulse of / raindrops bursting in the throughfall; / / grey squirrel’s claw-clatter. The creak / of boughs recoiling from the leaf-loss; / the slow, earth-excavating trees. / / Now the sun is settling through a stained / glass sky of staggering blue that rings / like crystal struck, far, faint and high. / / The darkening, resined air is tense with / energy, circuits of sound, the buzz / of powerlines, the afterglow of rain.

Hung / / In the frail hung moment of a January / dawn, a single snowflake fetched / its hidden singularity and stretched / it on a cobweb by the kitchen. Six / / ragged limbs like cuttings-out my / daughter made, but yet with every / closer view made more precise, / like the inverse of complexity, a / / rabbit-hole that crystallises into order / going down, where Alice meets a / sudden truth that cannot be returned, / and light refracting in becomes / / more whole; so for that instant was / the tenuous year snared perfectly.

Je suis, Charlie Brown / / “What motivates them?” someone asked / in disbelief. “They / hate us”, cried another. “Monsters”, / spat a third, his face a mask / of someone else’s pain (after all / we are the dead, immortalised now / in communal grief). “We / are one”, cried everybody. Artists, / draw our strengths and strip us down / so we can understand appalling / truths in pencil lines and les mots justes / and laugh them off. You / see far more than we do. Inside / the story’s arc we each must / play out individual tragedies / on unexpected fields: theatres, / cafés, corner stores. “I / know that part”, I whisper. Outside, / up close, cold earth steeps winter’s / frigid air, the clay-grit bound by films / of iron water gripping stones / and stifling pores. Villains / or heroes both take sides. Now, / crouched, palm-marks and finger bones / in leaf-mould, breath lifts and cold sweat / drips. Clay-pressed palimpsests emerge / of all our gods. Martyrs / are made of cornered men. Then / up and tantara! – and gone.

Longshore drift / / In the way the wave / slips up / the lightening sand / / in the way / saltation marshals individual grains / to shape the berm and the / grounded sunlight shatters to / a million shadows through a / single surface / / so, faces / shuttered by a million flashbulbs / / cast the shadow of a single man / / and their long migrations / marshal individuals in one form / that breaks itself in wave / on wave / upon the indifferent shore.

It takes all sorts / / to bring a country down. Come / the revolution, face jowled against / the wall and lily-white paws clammy / with fear, old chap, these characters, / cocked berets, will / / be pissing on your shoes. Some / consolation that it’s not a gun / he’s waggling under that aggressive / grin, Len Thruckett, red-starred through / his rotten core. Still, / / he’s daddy’s bogeyman. Come / back to now. More likely this’ll be / the verse: collapsing pound and migrants / swarming, Aleem Mukhet, life vest / dripping on your floor. Kill / / any dream you had of sleep. The hum / of air-con groaning at the flies / which trickle in from stagnant towns / and circulate in twos and threes / like prophets. Fill / / up your car. Crunch blankly on a plum / in winter’s gloom, and startle when / the power blinks. It takes all sorts / to bring a country down. You / asked for this. It stinks.

In passing / *for Bernadette Rugen / / One by one we kneel and throw / down the russet dirt of Worcestershire / / onto the coffin in the / grave. All round, the saplings, some yet bare / / some weighing last year’s shells of / ochre leaves, are taut against the ground / / in protest at the red earth’s / mass, the certain order in its fall. / / Yet hollow sounds the soil-crumb / on the polished wood in dancing sunlight / / and the wind blows fierce and free / across the fields from the Malvern Hills.

The Point of Stoer / / Methodically he strips away the / layers of the place. The poverty / of choice, old hardships lined / in fields scratched on the bog-earth / margins like striations on the / ice-ground landscape’s bones. / He digs, and measures dip and strike / and picks away at time until the / meaning of the time is lost (at least, / to laymen). Deep time becomes / an extra yard of tape, another / exhibition board. He plots / / the rates of loss of nutrients and / takes the pulse of peatlands, graphs / the eagles, maps the stone. But if / this academic ever reached the / point of Stoer – / / dipping sheep, late March. Crofting men, / weak sun at their backs and the salt air / crusting their sufficient faces – then how would he record the / instant land and livelihood combine / in each complaining baptism?

On Carrownisky / Published in Agenda vol. 49 (1-2), 2015 / / (A stranding) / / Wet sand strafed / by cloud-wracked / sun-light amplifies / and recombines until / the bomb-bright / million-sun light / bares your atoms / silhouettes your heart / imprints the structure / of your self / upon the strandline, / palimpsest of flotsam / taken by the / wind and lifted / joining every other / thing in utter / praising here and / absolute eternal now. / /   / (Return) / / Soft rain falls faintly / upwards from the mirrored / sand-swash. / / Dancing there above a / realised shadow-you, / wind-glowing, hair blown / back a hundred or a thousand years, / / the shining strand stretched thinly / brings about a transubstantiation / here, beneath a sudden crown / of lightening sky, the vaulting blue / / reflected, punctured now and then / by foam; an absolution, priest-less, / welcoming a child home. / /   / / / (The midden) / / They light a fire on the strand each year – more often if they can – / and mark the passing time in nameless ceremony. / / Rituals evolve: construction of the fire pit from sand; / who makes the Thermos tea; who keeps the twist of butter for the pan. / / The celebrants change gradually as well. The year-marks one can see, / the lifelines lengthen on the hands. Eyes deepen. Children’s names change. / / And all around the dunes shift silently remembering / the warmth of bodies gathered round a flame, the / / heat and light sustaining down the generations, much the same.

Act of creation / / You sit cross-legged fine-boned strong / cross-lengthening-legged, strong-breathing / thinking boy. Your hands / / fine-fingered hands manipulate the flat clay / kneading pressing handling making / clay-creating stretching / / substance into form from hands’ fine- / thinking fingers like the fingers of the / stone-age boy you conjure / / as you work. The clay-hand-mouth-formed / boy, idea of boy, the lip-wrung realisation / of eternal childhood / / sparkling you inseparably you an / equal other life ineffable potent human child your / / mind’s eye’s treasure-house invested / in this artless vessel, perfectly imperfect / re-expression of / / a human self, this dancing shadow / testament, this jar of clay.

Archimedes’ daughter / / So here’s the lever: small slip-shift / between the cannot and the can. The / crystal air of afternoon is angled so / the colours change, that phase slip / interfering with the past’s accepted norms. / Her story in her hands, the reach / the probe, the slip, the clumsy limbs / transforming by a strength of will, the / muscle-feel learned, an act of trust, self-trust / the confidence of innocence replaced by / blossoming intelligence, the light her own. // The barbed wire fence below. A vaulting / open sky beyond, her father dumbstruck / motionless beside me: watching her go.

Sleeper / / Sunrise. The sun dries unswept / pavements with a kiss of heat. / / The obtuse orange light picks out / the crumpled form in hard-edged / / unexpected angled shafts that / somehow soften and make normal / tucked hands and pulled-in knees, the / passers-by reminded of a child’s sleep.

Jet lag / / It’s on the second leg it gets me / carried in the hidden rumble / of the jets and the Earth’s turn / far beneath, / / reluctant lift into the desert sky / I do not know, lights receding / into a stranger sea. It’s on the / second time- / / shift that I metamorphose too / get light and small, you faraway / and still in darkness high up on / the shoulder / / of the world. Trolleys shuttle / drinks, some people sleep. Beyond / the blinds, pink dawn on Bam / and Qandahar.

Mt Adatara, June 2015 / Years on from the March 2011 nuclear disaster, radioactivity persists in the canopies and soils of the dense, beautiful forests which cover the region around the Fukushima Daichi site. / / Pale blue sky whitens / birdsong softens to a cuckoo’s sigh / sun angles through an open window / and the wind carries me / into green forests.

Meaning of water / / It’s the concentration of landscape: / each trickle under every hedge / or stone; the flash and flicker of sunlight / on the surface of a brimming brook / that draws out minerals from peat / and flushes through farmyards; / / how, when it rains, the contours are made plain / as filaments on the field’s hidden door / admitting seeps, sinks, drains. / They say / that if you want to visualise a tree / in its true form, you need to cast the ground / as mirror – roots as limbs and branches / reaching down through soil, infiltrating rock / cracking open stone as boughs break in the wind. / / Water here is taut, stretched, wrung-out bundles / strung out through the web of pores / which earth is. Its tension grips and plucks at / sediment, sucks molecules from litter / entrains the stuff of landscape into flow, / becomes a flux; the catchment is a motion / the casting off of skin, in water shed. / / Now stand here, by the Rivelin, skipping stones. / Each kiss and kick of the surface scatters / light, every touching-point a mirror, or / a doorway, concentrating landscape, / expanding the meaning of water.

Reading Roche Abbey / / I am the river falling down the tree-full / craggy limestone valley / I am the square-dressed channel pressing / geometry on the flow / I am the tempered steel that weighs the / artisan’s intent against the stone / I am the arches raised to sanctify the / captured sky / / I am the open psalms of birdsong / freckling the skin-pale air / I am the earth that bears the fallen flying / Gothic walls and yields the grain / I am the uncut cliff-bound rock’s dark / diagenesis, the transformation / I am the calcifying shell, the hold-fast settling / through coral seas / / I am the pulsing beat of tides, the heave / of continents, the star-dust rain / I am time I am light I am the viewer / and the viewed, the revelation / / I am the story forming on the surface of / your eye— an illumination. / / / / / / / / / / / / / /////////