25 December

Drenched world.
Real Christmas is greyed out and damp,
Not deep and crisp and even.
It smells of oak leaf mulch
And seeds pushing down and down
Into pulverised clay.
It sounds like the sparse scribbling of birds
And crow caws splitting the sky.

Like a small breath in stillness,
Behind the dirty netting of cloud
The sun unhitches and begins to move,
Trailing a slow processional of light
Into the mud and trees.


There are no mermaids in these sentences,
But there are mernaids in …

                                    anemone …
                                    anthracite …
                                    aconite …

What is the word for the sea-snail
Sealed in stone?

The mermaids were chipped out of hard rock
Carefully, craftfully –
As mermaids are also chipped out of hard word.
The habits of mermaids are yearning,
Lond tendrils growing towards the light,
From where they are enclosed
In teapots and earth-walking shoes,
Not always irreversibly.

Work can be a liberation, but
It can also be a stone
That is lying on your chest, or
Which you are dragging on a chain.
It can be a sort of prison.
Love, also, is like that –
A freedom or a constraint.
And who knows if love or work Is more important?

But often work is easier,
Even if it’s fingers in salty cracks,
Bitter winds,
Oozing mud,
Twisted-ankle scrambling,
A tiny scalpel,
An eye seeking for forms.
Then hawking the goddamn thing –
This is when you forget
To be a mermaid.

Pick six phrases at randon from any book – and write.

“I puralise a word”
“Enclosed in a given belief system”
“The habits of samsara
“In fact, everything that is perceivable”
“Examine how your intentions deeply affect your mood”
“Irreversibly, tropical forests are literally disappearing”

Ammonite – a film by Francis Lee.

Image: Ashleigh Joy

Selkie Song: a POTS flare-up

Labouring to breathe, and your heart dances titter tatter,
While your head swoops and swims.
This is the problem: you have purified yourself too much,
Squeezed carbon dioxide zealously out of every cell.
Now you feel like a heavy-headed weed,
Lank and gangling in the summer shade.

Perhaps, you think, you really are a selkie,
Short of wind and gasping in the oxygenous air.
Hauled in on the net of your own curiosity,
You do not belong here.

20-minute poetry
Image: Nsey Benajah
POTS: Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. People with POTS ‘over-breathe’, eliminating too much carbon dioxide. This makes us tired, breatheless and brain-fogged.

Mother tongue

My one-year-old son learns to talk
Language forms like the lumps in buttermilk.
The starry white scrambles, clots,
Composing itself into phrases, bits of rhyme.
Pat, pat, pat,
A primitive sentence banged into shape between wooden clappers.
Your words arc like the fluted yellow curls in crystal dishes,
Precise articulate scallops that roll off the tongue,
Suave and sweet and unguent.
(June 2000)

Yellow and purple flowers. Wild bees hazing the big shrub of which I do not know the name. So many different sappy greens. April. Spring smells strong this year.

You were a year old when I wrote this poem and now you’re man – reading for a degree in … words. What’s to be said about the flight of time and the love thicker than blood that isn’t a cliché really?

April was my seventh month. Of course it would be so much easier if you could just keep them safe inside. All mothers know that. But every womb shrivels in the end. Time is a despot. You can’t run and you can’t hide.

I have a new kind of life – one I yearned and yearned for when you were one and I felt like a biscuit ground into the carpet. I thought that was erasure. I was too young to know that, like the moon, the self has many phases. Still I feel adrift somehow, among all this middle-aged arrival and fruition.

The shifting nature of time has always been hard for me. When I was young, I tried to fix it by not eating, as if I could hold my breath and be a chip of a harder kind of matter – sterner stuff. Eventually, of course, time bust the seams. You cannot win this one. One day I will be an old woman and you will inherit the earth.

Words were important – the song of them – back and forth. And the meaning too: ‘that’s a cat’ – ‘cat’ … ‘that’s a cup’ – ‘cup’ … And so you talked early – people remarked on it – as I did too, both licked by mother tongue.

And in the middle of this, my neighbour gave me big clumps of giant daisies, and I thought how once I would have felt interrupted, unable to hold together my scattered parts and endure through. Writing was so precious then. Now I stop, plant, pick up again, as if it were all one thing. As if I could always write and life is an unstoppable stream.



20-minute poems – no title

Open your eyes –
The glorious world is still here,
Humming and splitting its wild throat with song.

Look –
At the rusty belly of the vixen
Grazing the yellow of the primroses,
And the great metallic vectors of the branches
Shifting in the wind.

See –
The clouds are banking, and new things
Are pushing aside the slow, wet fragments of the earth
Urgent to be born.

Image: Brett Jordan



Mind in overdrive,
Creating, parsing, shuffling, filing,
Running comparative projections,
The engine revving and rumbling like a beast
Beneath the quiet geometries of the intermediate series.

And I give thanks for the cunning life of the cognitive mind,
The great survivor that ducks and dives its way
Through the material world.

Meanwhile, below the surface of the murky pond
The big bright fish swim slowly,
Languid as ancient summer afternoons.

17/3/20, When Social Isolation Has Just Been Decreed.
Intermediate series is one of the sequences of ashtanga vinyasa yoga.

Image: Sora Sagano




The most important thing is writing myself down
Like a diver on the end of this rope
Into the ocean of images
That startle only slowly into starbursts of words,
Bright and sporadic, like sudden shoals of fish
Blurting into the silent world.
The most important thing is to live in the floating place,
Is slowly to unspool.

Dispersing waters, edgeless and unbound, that’s me.
But two books back-to-back
Made a container for that –
A ewer, a jug,
A magic vessel from which the liquid of my days
Poured out dry, clean-edged, an artefact,
An army of ants
Pressed between covers and
Fixed in an aspic of time.

  Image: Nate Neelson.

Selkie: Land and Sea

I’ve identified with the selkie for as long as I can remember. When I wrote the first of these poems in September 2001 (it was September – I hadn’t realised), I was 38 and my son was two. I felt beached and grounded and longed for the sea (the metaphorical one). Now, I am 54 and my son is 18. He left home three weeks ago, and I’m living an oscillation of exhilaration and grief. I wrote the second poem in September 2017 as part of a dance workshop process.

Selkie I: Land
Morvoren came sliding like an easy birth
Between the slipstreams,
Surrendered silence for clattering tongues
And the shushing of the trees.

The air was shocking,
Entering her nostrils,
Filling up her lungs like death,
Like birth.
(When the child slipped from her
Smoothly as a fish
She recognised his shock,
The smack of air,
And for a moment felt befriended
In the desert of breath).

Duty was a little window,
A pane filled up with apples swelling,
Spattered by ludicrous drops of rain
Like someone else’s artefacts
Displayed in a glass case.
She was someone else here;
Their rare exotica
Her little globes of memory.

Seeing tired her,
And walking on feet.
At night she dreamed of the boat unhitched
And gliding, gliding …
But something held her attention:
The memory of an ocean unleashed,
Pleated ridges and the seal pup beached,
Still smelling of salt and fish.
The tender cord
Gave way to linen apron strings –
A flimsy rope;
She let it hold.

So Morvoren cut her cloth on the bias,
Hemmed it with chains of tiny days,
A rosary of small devotions.
But her heart strayed over the wet brown sand
Like an errant dog,
Returning covered in burrs
And undomestic.

The edge she walked was
The skim of a stone,
The arc of a wing,
A shifting seam,
Where the sea flung in and out like a querulous queen,
Dragging the sand against the grain,
Trailing squalls of gulls and seaweed streamers.

Morvoren knew it could not hold,
And so it was.
The line swerved, marshalled itself, came in.
The sea like a big bad wolf lolled out its tongue,
Ate up the land.
For a moment she crested,
Dancing in a veil of spray.
The boy, no more a boy now,
Caught his breath,
Knew better than to fix her with his eyes,
But often afterwards stared out to sea.

September 2001.

Selkie II: Sea
And then again the sea:
The clean and empty house,
Its objects alphabetised, aligned.
The dreamed-of sea:
Desired, the same,
And not the same.
The geese trailing their skein
Of autumn grief.
Rending and tearing,
Rending and tearing.

Here you are,
Arms raised,
A hieratic saint
In a sleep-suit;
Like a small animal,
Soft and breathing fast.
Here it is,
Tender, dreadful, umbilical:
The love.

Here I am,
Tipping like a tide
At the line of the sea
Breaking salt white curls:
Backwards, forwards;
Backwards, forwards.
Here I am,
Wavering and wondering –
After all that.

It turns out a skin
Is not a surface:
It’s what you discover
When you think you are like a biscuit
Ground into the rug.
You think you are flayed, abraded,
And you cannot do this any more.
It turns out
It is only, exactly this.

September 2017.