I have been writing poetry for as long as I can remember, and my work has won prizes in many major poetry competitions. Though fiction is now my profession — and a marvellous profession it is — poetry remains my first love, and I think the skills you acquire as a poet — sense of place, economy of expression, making one word do the work of many, and a feeling for the sounds and rhythms of language — serve a novelist well.
The Floods, 1963Open or CloseThat winter we ran aground. Water
stretched as far as Lechlade spire, sucked thick round squat willows, silenced the lock gates,
where the old bridge, still rigged, heaved on its pilings, trees lost root, and roads lay low beneath the flood.
While somewhere under the moving plain, between the stones and the earth, the river scoured and tugged.
We laid fortifications:
sacks of sand along each small, forgotten breach where the water might make an entrance;
caulked house and thoughts against the mud and the mess and the dark.
But the river lapped and coiled and called in the night and our breath betrayed us, running wet down the glass.
Hazed with burning oil, the house ached and creaked damp to its bones;
Dogs peed on the floor, the baby coughed, and the water rose -
took new forms: moulds clustering in the flutes of curtains, sooty spore-bursts on the wall.
Rose and kept us at bay, small before our fire, reeking of paraffin.
Rose, growing from underneath, milky with lime and the smell of rot water, beading the stone skin, slippery with sweat.
No navigator taking the measure of a flat world,
was smaller than my father, toiling our slight boat over absent fields, searching for land,
letting the current find him,
trusting that some watery fortune would see him sound.
FinistèreOpen or CloseThis is the Pointe du Raz,
this place is Finistère:
the fall, the undertow, the earth’s end where
my father’s face is bones beneath the feathers of his blown back hair.
Tears in his mica eyes, spray on his skin
here on the Pointe du Raz the salted man leans in
to the force of wind and the rough, wet air.
Keep blowing east to landfall, wind
from sea to earth, from dark beyond
the razor’s edge of Finistère;
keep him keep all my safety here.
(Prize-winner in the Bridport Prize 2009; shortlisted for the Forward Prize 2009)
Self-Portrait in a Low CountryOpen or CloseThey say that, afterwards, I hid myself in every painting. Always in disguise.
Here I am a peasant, here a stout priest, here a crone - you can tell by the nose and the folds of patient suffering.
Some consider the boy twins show both my sides, the light and dark. It is disputed.
But almost certainly the second thief upon the cross is me.
I bore a face like that after my wife died. Gaunt, resigned, alone;
those who think it is my brother, called the Elder, see nothing.
The man in the feathered hat, his sword in hand, is not me.
I have painted him as a fat noble. His small power and self-content I took from my landlord.
The woman next to him with downcast eyes, her breasts nestled in fur, a golden chain about her hips,
his wife. Do not be taken in.
She came to offer solace while my love was not yet cold upon the bed.
Smelled of honey and cedar. Her breath fast and warm.
Many a raw night I spent after I lost my place,
Setting up my easel in inns and forges, drawing on the charity of strangers.
Painting their ruddy boys and round fair girls for food.
None of these me and, no, none my son.
No-one has found him. A sickly boy, his grey eyes hers, not suited to a travelling life.
They say my landscapes are stylised. My gift is faces. But lift your eyes to the ash tree -
he is a pale shadow in the leaves. Almost invisible. A stroke. He is there and then,
he is gone.
The clue is in the broken brush beside the road.
A Nottinghamshire DeathOpen or CloseWherever he is going
it is somewhere small.
He is Alice bemused by the bottle; has drunk a shrinking potion.
One thing is for certain -
he is being prepared
for somewhere tight.
The way back to the seam may be a tunnel, or a door left slightly ajar;
a crack in the floorboards.
One curl of wind when the big people turn away and he’ll go tumbling down the rabbit hole.
But he will breathe easy there under the pyrite stars .
He is a man of the depths, strong in the dark.
He won’t speak to them now:
The people who knock and don’t wait for an answer,
The big people.
The readers. The walkers. The breathers. The bounders
Who don’t hear when he whispers - stop poking around,
When he cries hoarsely - I’ll slam the door in her face,
When he, outraged, trembles at the touch of helpers and friends.
But when he demands locks for the windows
and curtains left drawn,
Who is he afraid will slip in behind the jostling grandchildren,
the tiers of cousins, the doctor, the nice nurse and the woman who wants to rope up his bath, the boy who riddles the ash and clinker, the jolly Wednesday volunteers
- none of them growing smaller?
Who might take advantage of a half-shut door?
It might not be a stranger but the man with the flat cap and no appointment.
The duster coat. The slate grey skin.
The fingers of the coal fields, grit in his voice
The calm face of the Overman, the outstretched hand.
His call is brief. He won’t be staying long.
And when no-one’s about, the cage descends.
The Daughter's TaleOpen or CloseI take my father’s arm he is inclined
To step out.
He is inclined against me and he steps out in front of cars.
My father has known all our lives. And more.
He has known war. Has worn battledress
And has floated from the sky under a canopy of silk.
He has lain in Oxfordshire bluebell woods while the sky floated over him. He has drowsed in dusty lecture halls off the High then pedalled to St Giles for tea, gown in basket, as the yellow Michaelmas lights bloomed in a hundred tiny rooms. He has been jealous, has read The Scholar Gypsy, My Last Duchess, owns Milton and John Donne.
He has run in the mud, has played rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis, and squash, he has a wavy book on how to sail. He can swim. He once tried a horse called Topper.
My father’s hands were iridescent with trout scales, and he set himself until dusk in the balsam and midges of the riverbank, with his treasury of russet and crimson flies, his silver floats, his keep net, reels and priest.
He wore a flowery tie, white shoes, a spotted scarf around his neck in France. He smelled of bay rum. He could jive.
And all the cars he drove - the pilot, rapier, toledo; warrior cars hurled down the Hogs’ Back, or forced tense through Hanger Lane. Fists shaking. Silly buggers.
This is not allowed now. He is inclined to step out in front of cars, even at the wheel. They have disarmed him.
Though his words are wise his counsel considered. His temper sudden. His courage great. His folly muted. He takes the longer view. He has the gift of love.
He has loved women, dogs, rivers and hot foreign places with lemon trees and white beaches and tideless green seas.
And the dales where shadows wash over like a veil,
And the east where the dark waves rattle the stones, and wires sing in the wind.
And the west where he lived by the old lock, deep and arsenic green.
And now London. Walled in his garden I have given him a rose called open arms.
Light, lean, inclined against me.
His is a life of curling corners, stories told.
And yet he gets smaller, his sight closes in, his hearing dims.
Why has all this, the years, the loves, the fights, the roads, the tales, diminished him?
He steps out. The incline is becoming steeper.
Snail BonesOpen or CloseI still move, spinning while she is still
Somewhere back there there are snail
Bones bleached soft chalky years from their mucus life
And liverish slate tiles, set evenly on edge like teeth
And crusty brown flowerpots
And flint in the path, somewhere back there
Where I cannot get without her rising to direct me
To where, I think, there are primula, puce and mustard
And a door in a dead sort of colourless green paint
Which sends spiny splinters behind the nails,
A pane of broken glass edged with fragile putty
In long tufts of grass
And, I have to think, a small bird is frantic in the greenhouse
Something is afraid and mad
Battering at the glass,
Where what smells sweet is only tomatoes.
But she is gone deep into the fossils and the snail bones
Curling into herself, turning away.
November Triolet, 11/11Open or CloseDamp shadow leaves beneath the London plane
Last echoes caught within the bridges span
The boundary softening in this haze of rain
Damp shadow leaves beneath the London plane
Dark echoes of a juicy summer stain
The fallen chatter of the bloom of man
Damp shadow leaves beneath the London plane
Last echoes caught within the bridges’ span.
Mort SafeOpen or CloseBy Fairford church my grandmother lies on her back, waiting for the resurrection.
Plus ça change she might have said. Or even c’est la vie. Under a rose
the name of which she knew and I do not; it is one of those new varieties; scentless, reliable and discreet,
You might think it strange, if you had known my grandmother, years ago, while she was Still in the flesh.
And my wild dark uncle, broken-boned, tipped into his grave.
Forty winters above, thirty below, spinning into the night and the rain, said to have dropped off at the wheel.
No mending his ways now. He is not sleeping, he is dead.
Clustering round the church my ancestors, once illustrious, currently picturesque, come to nothing under table tombs,
edged round with the stumps of railings marking them out from the rest,
asserting, as they did in life, some superior right of territory,
resisting any premature call to account.
And others, still, in eastern sarcophagi, rejecting the local stone as rustic
turn to dust with their litter of infants beneath a meaty sort of granite
tapered at the end.
As we all shall be, tapered at the end.
And in the church I have lit candles for them and made promises, few of which I kept
and held sleeping or furious babies safely through rites I only half believe.
My mother, come lately to the newer part, is close to the water,
the mill and the celebrated view.
She rests by a gentle, insinuating river,
bearing the dead away. Taking nothing with them.
Somewhere I have an important certificate.
In gothic print it gives me or my nominees the right, to lie
with her in Plot 97b. One up on my mother for all time, weighing heavily upon her,
my years now greater than her years.
How long, how long?
Picture it, capture them: the stone, the spire, the little bridge and the churchyard
where the older dead are arranged so much more prettily, more haphazardly, than the recent ones
who cope with the surprise in regulation plots.
But then the newly dead have visitors, who come in love or obligation, not curiosity,
sprucing up their graves with a fresh bunch of dahlias
or watering cut sods of turf, keeping them alive.
Cheerfully greeting other morning grave-tenders who have become familiar;
they are coming up in the morning and in the evening they are cut down.
There are dustbins for the rotten flowers and the cellophane and
the saturated cards with their inky sentiments rained into something that is no longer even writing.
GalateaOpen or CloseHe comes home, she comes as the garage doors
glide on remote, the buttons pushed
while thinking of something else. Just like that
she is his. Every time.
Her legs are ivory, her toes are nacreous pink;
a body so perfect other men wish they had thought of it.
She is drilled once a week and has seen the world from a bike in the gym;
knife pleats bounce at the crease of her thighs, whiter than white. She is always game.
She has value; her hair is wired with gold,
her teeth are small and neat, diamonds perfect her lobes.
She gazes out from eyes of lapis blue.
All her anniversaries are prized in gems.
He is a self-made man; he aches for the chisel and the promise of rough stone new under his hand.
Euridyce in the UpperworldOpen or CloseSometimes it comes back to haunt him,
and not just at night but in the dark day room where he once
played music to her, kept the curtains open to the shooting stars,
loved the grey promise of dawn before she left,
watched her, bluish, hazy, sleeping in the silent light.
Now he has jammed the sash with pages from the Ham and High,
has safety pins to hold the curtains shut, found blackout curtains in a car boot sale.
Since she left him and since he persuaded her to try again,
and since he fetched her home
smelling of roots and earth
her dress soiled and damp, something green around the hem,
since he brought her back to light.
Rising from her deep place through the lower oolitic to the upper,
She is passing the marly beds, the shale and the clay,
tiny shells, ruined creatures unimaginably small,
brachiopods, urchins, things of the sea.
She reaches back, her fingertips brush helical snails, fossils shaped like fans, brown clay pipes and devil’s toenails. Bones.
Still he leads her, gathering speed
Forced through the crumbling earth, things growing down.
Finally, one last violence and they are born into a calciferous hollow in a wood of oaks.
Things scuttle and hide, he brushes off the lime, eager for her to see him at his best.
This time everything is right. Outside, the brilliant day, the sun hard in a dark blue sky,
dust from the cave floor silvers the very air she’ll breathe.
He hauls her forward, she is looking up, perhaps she screams,
he turns and what he sees appals.
He sees cracked hands, black nails, torn lank hair,
scorched, gummy sockets, burned out by light.
Stumbling, slipping, choking, wiping at his lips,
he leaves the imperfect thing blind and alone.