Keep this object like a treasure

‘Keep this object like a treasure,’
said the artist with the bandaged head
and eyes full of the star-filled heavens –
his retinas forever scarred by the sight.

The blood showed where the wound was
in a flash, she knew as much as he
and so her heart was doubly broken
at all his endured rejection and suffering.

The object, worth as much as his best canvas
not much, then; but now, an incalculable fortune –
some maniacal collector of the unique could acquire
none more so than the ear of damaged genius

whether severed in the act of shaving or raving
or if it was a dress rehearsal for the end
and by how much he fell short, who knows.
Either way, ‘The sadness will last forever.’

The madam into whose hands he passed it
spent many a subsequent night skulling wine
with the wrapped cartilage before her
riffing on the mysteries of existence

which of all of us who have ever lived
the artist is reckoned to have come as close
as any to understanding, if not solving –
the ear encapsulating his struggle.

From the madam, whose name was Rachel
it was bequeathed down the family line
– keepsake, fetish, forget-me-not, talisman –
until death passed it into my hands.

I open the intricately carved wooden box
take out the black-spotted, yellowed bandage
and expose the grey, shrivelled pinna
to sight and air and time and sorrow.

The question I ponder is this – do I wear the relic
around my neck, and accept what fate decrees
or do I take it along to Sotheby’s or Christie’s
and put ear and art and soul under the hammer?



Looking back
Ithaca was the end beginning
a decision inevitably made
between the two of you
without reference
to the hidden third party.

You told me about it
and even as I sucked it up
encasing my heart
in a layer of protective shell
I tried to return the good of it
for the pair of you
though I could not forget
that we too had fantasised
many an island scene.

To know that the dream
was overcome by a reality
from which I needs must
be excluded
I seeped like an Aleppo pine
bled for its resin
to make the wine
you will drink there
without me.

Even beyond completion
my eyes had been in yours
– that day by the monastery
on top of the mountain
looking out upon a sky-reflecting sea
dotted with islands jewels
of emerald and agate
springs immediately to mind –
but what you see now
remains invisible to me
and I can only imagine

– the light of the sunset behind
the mountain watching over you
the ceaseless stridulation
of the Egyptian grasshoppers
the scent of wild thyme
and sweet oleander
meltelmied to your nose
the unwaxed feel of a lemon
in the hand I loved to hold
the taste of retsina transferred
from your tongue to mine –

I can only imagine, and conclude
that if your place on earth
is there without me
then your time on earth
must likewise be without me.

And so now it is my task
– as great as any related
by the island’s poet –
to find my way to some other
place and time.

Permanence, an act of sacrifice *

Of course I am wondering
as I have always had cause to do
whether the silence is temporary
or permanent, an act of sacrifice
on both our parts

You do not tell
because to speak is to commit
and in what is now older
than a seven year itch
the mind tasked with protecting
your divided heart
has never been able to chose

I do not ask
because that is to put myself
back in your careworn hands
and I can no longer stomach
the pause
between my certain question
and its ambiguous answer

So I must see what was as over
and pretend that what is
is better than what was
until one day, finally,
permanently, penultimately,
it stands some slender chance
of being so.

* Esperanza Base

I no longer write poetry

I no longer write poetry
the haiku’s constraint constrains
and unrestrained verses yield scant pleasure
beyond the greater thumping

of my solitary heart

meet me in the Bird Room of the Tolson
let’s see the station (or even Harold Wilson)
The Paper and mills and Dixons milk ices
these are words that were never said save

in my solitary mind

carnival is cancelled, we’ll not soca this year
nor raise the floorboards bhangra-style
but I still love with a Nerudan heart
and scan you with e e’s eye, floating free

above my solitary body

Memory believes before knowing remembers

Believe me, I’ve tried. In my drafts are pieces variously entitled ‘Wall, come tumbling down’, ‘All I have is words’, ‘Room of one’s own’ and ‘Her bright smile haunts me still’, among others. All but perhaps one of them seem fatally flawed in retrospect. The temptation is to build a Frankenstein out of these pieces but I really don’t want to present and leave at large something monstrous. There are poems too, ones which have lost their way and are wandering around eyeless in a forest, unable to orient themselves and so discover a path back out of the darkness.

Something is telling me that I need to reinvent my writing here, that it’s not enough to write as I have done before.

But as ever, silence isn’t as flat as it seems. I have in fact been writing furiously; that is, the words have been tumbling out of me, free cartwheeling and backflipping and even occasionally somersaulting. The aim of them is an offline book rather than to fill these virtual pages. It’s a third of the way into being and occupying my every writing moment. My subject? What it has always been for the past seven years, only set over the course of a lifetime.

In mind and heart as well as in writing I too have despaired, I have cried out in frustration, and I have worried about the lack of joy to be taken from anything which doesn’t occupy my brain with its physicality. Delight has come either from nature or through becoming lost in my own story or in the stories of others, stories which have no bearing on mine, stories for which I am simply a curious fly on the wall. Stories which – yes – allow me to forget myself, for a time.

Oh, there are so many things I could say, but the underlying, the fundamental truth is that since nothing has changed for me, I simply don’t know where to go from here, save for back into the pages and chapters of my book. There, memory and knowing are mixing together in a fiction that is realer to me than reality. And there, again for a time, I can throw off the heaviness cloaking my heart.


She looked at him seriously now. ‘You hand me too much power, George. It is not a burden, but it might become one, and I do not wish that.’ She touched his arm. ‘I know you do it out of your abundant kindness, but there may come a day when both you and I would wish that I treat you less carefully. And that must remain a possibility, George. If there is never a chance of hardness or pain, then softness has no meaning.’” – Patrick Ness, The crane wife

“The volcano frowns. ‘I will not listen to your riddles, my lady.’ … ‘This is not the way our story ends. You know this.’
‘Stories do not end.’
‘Ah, you are right, but you are also wrong. They end and they begin every moment. It is all about when you stop the telling.’” – Patrick Ness, The crane wife

It’s my belief that everything which matters is speakable, if only it matters enough, and you are both determined and fearless in the telling of it. The choice you have is whether to tell your truth to an audience, no matter how large or small, or to the person or people that it concerns. The choice you make will of course affect how you tell the story of your truth, and how in turn the story – the truth – is received.

There are some days – weeks, it can stretch to – where I feel I have to be free of this thing, that I cannot bear the great, surging, all-encompassing swell of it any longer. I try to wither it within me, so that I may move on, so that she may, without the tug of me in her ear, or the back of her mind. I try looking about me. And yet each time I do, there comes a day – usually sooner rather than later – when its call cannot any longer be ignored. The great, surging, all-encompassing swell of it spills over, and I am hopelessly within the element of it once again.

I miss her with an ache which seems to combine the functions of all of my vital organs, stretching each to the very limit of its capacity. I miss her like the inconsolable teenager who breaks her ankle at the most inopportune moment and so misses out on what was going to have been the trip of a young lifetime. I miss her like the old man who, reviewing the course of the decades, comes unstuck all over again in face of the greatest ‘what if?’ of his life. I miss her like the keening of the wounded crane in Patrick Ness’ book, shot through its wing by the arrow of love.

But if she does not miss me in the same way, or not quite the same way, or with not quite the same never-ending constancy of heartbeat or breath, then inevitably I am left wondering, what exactly is the point of my keening? What good does it serve? It is only making two people unhappy. The solution which presents itself – not for the first time – as the only possible one is to take my keening voice away, and try and subdue it for long enough that I can begin to control it rather than have it always controlling me.

It’s a solution which never seems to last for very long before the need to keen out loud again – to be heard and witnessed by the one reader who is in a position to understand everything that I write – aligns itself with the need to crave, the need to breathe and the need to love. I have felt the apology rising within me, but as she once wrote, there is no point in saying sorry – sorry doesn’t touch the sides of what this is, was, could have been.

And so here I am, and there she is. Here is where I will now try to focus the keening until it emerges from my throat as melody and song rather than weeping and wailing. There is where she tells her truth slantwise, and I confess I am left confounded. I search her heart for answers to my questions, but I can no longer see into it or the present or the future as well as once I could. And of all the things which cause me sorrow, it is perhaps this that troubles those stretched but still vital organs of mine the most.

The dream of the fisherman’s wife


By the light of the full moon, she dives for pearls.

She has discovered a secret – one unknown to her husband, whose work it is to fish for them – that it is easier to see a pearl’s nacreous glow in lunar luminescence than under filtered sea-light from the sun. The discovery was an accident, as all the best secrets are.

Drunk on cherry blossom and sake, she had waded naked into the shallows one night for the thrill of the chill water about her limbs. On an impulse – it being such a still night, and she a strong swimmer – she decided to make for the island on the other side of the strand. But halfway across, following her nose to that of the island’s, she saw iridescence dotted beneath her. Stars at the bottom of the sea! She trod water, to make certain that this was no trick of the light, no malevolence designed to lure her to her death. The dots of light remained, and looking up, she saw that there seemed to be a kind of ethereal connection between them and the moon high up in the night sky.

Without thinking, she took in a gulp of air and with all her might kicked and swam for the bottom. At the first attempt she came up short. She gathered herself, steadied her breathing, and once again took in as much air as she could. Then she kicked down harder still, and soon stretched her hand for the bottom, closing it around a shell before propelling herself back towards the moon. On breaking the surface, she heaved in air and spluttered out water. She had lost interest in reaching the island and instead headed back to the shore from which she had swum. She opened her hand, and then the shell of the oyster. The pearl was larger than the ones her husband brought home from his trips much further out to sea. Secretly she added it to his cache, and feigned innocence when the next day, he told her in a puzzled voice that his pearls must have been feeding themselves overnight, for there was one which seemed bigger than it had been the day before.

Ever afterwards, when the moon was full, and as long as the sea was calm and there was no cloud cover, she would slip out of bed, go down to the beach, swim towards the nose of the island, and dive for the oyster bed. She took in her hands as many as she could gather and placed them in a little string bag that she wore around her neck before having to return to the surface for air. Her lungs expanded and she became capable of staying under for minutes at a time. She always added the pearls she gathered to her husband’s cache, and by degrees, their wealth increased. She never told him of her moonlit adventuring, fearing to put an end to her luck, and being reluctant to do anything which might spoil the largely contented peace between them.

One moonlit night, the sea was a little rougher than she would have liked, and every now and again, a bank of clouds moved to obscure the face of the satellite, before rushing onwards. Naked on the beach, she hesitated. But something in the sea called to her, and she placed her trust in the moon, which had never failed her yet. Out she swam, and it was only when she realised that she was closer to the island than she should be but had yet to see the familiar iridescence that she started to panic. She trod water, re-oriented herself, and swam back a little way towards the shore, reckoning her position by its familiar outline. They should have been beneath her then, the pearls, but she could see nothing. A sense of heartbreak rising, she nevertheless kicked down towards the sea bed. But the oysters were gone, or was it that they had all been covered over by some recent seismic disturbance? Instead she saw two yellowy-orange eyes, glowing in the moonlight. Her heart beat hard in both her chest and her ears as the rest of the octopus emerged from a cleft in the rocks.

It was nearly as pale as she, its head bulbous. Despite her fear, she instinctively wanted to touch and stroke it. Its tentacles undulated in the slight current. One stretched out, and its suckers fixed themselves about her wrist with a gentleness which surprised her. She held out her other arm, and the corresponding tentacle took that wrist too. She let herself fall back in the water, pushed by the octopus, which then brought all its other arms into play, wrapping them about her torso every which way. Two of the tentacles worked together to tear the string bag from her neck, and suckers on this arm closed softly but firmly about each of her nipples. The pleasure was such that immediately her body went limp, before reawakening and straining into the feel of each of the many suckers now fastened all over her. She gave herself to the binding about her; she gave herself to the octopus, and when it put its mouth to her labia, she also offered up her body to drowning, letting out a gasp of air; she could think of no sweeter way to die. But no sooner had she sighed what she thought would be her last breath than a second octopus, smaller than the first, put its mouth to hers, kissing her, and somehow breathing back into her the air that she needed to survive this subaqueous encounter. She felt the larger octopus place its beak against her labia and met it with a wet rush. The octopus’ suckers responded by pinching her all over her body; the pain was an unknowable pleasure, the pleasure an exquisite pain.

As if telepathically, each octopus gently pushed its respective beak between her corresponding pairs of lips. She bucked involuntarily but was held firm by the arms of the larger cephalopod. The smaller had wrapped several tentacles about her neck; the end of another played with the nipple of her left-hand breast. It would have been impossible to escape, even if she had wanted to, but she did not. Her hair flowed out into the water, and there was nothing other than the ecstasy she was receiving from the octopuses’ embrace. Nothing could compete with it, not even the thrill of picking a lustrous pearl from an oyster’s flesh on a beach by the light of the moon. Her labia were swollen from the constant teasing motion of the larger cephalopod’s mouth, and soon she was giving it the taste of her own salty liquidity, so much more viscous than the element in which the octopus lived. Her eyes rolled back ahegao in their sockets, and she was only dimly aware of the larger tentacles disengaging those of the smaller octopus, only dimly aware of her body breaking the surface of the water in the octopus’ arms, only dimly aware of it carrying her back towards the beach as air flooded back into her lungs.

In the shallows, it lifted the arm which lay across her breasts, the gentle pinch and pop of the disengaged suckers rousing her from her climax-induced slumber. The octopus put the end of this arm, its third right, to her mouth, letting the topmost sucker cup her bottom lip while the tip of the tentacle flirted suggestively with the upper. She opened her mouth to receive it, moaning quietly as she tasted the not unfamiliar flesh. The rest of the octopus’ tentacles caressed her now less fluidly than they had on the sea bed, but before long she was once again enraptured. She swallowed the octopus’ capsules whole, and the exultancy which she felt as they slipped down her throat and into her mantle cavity brought on the rush of a second climax, coaxed out of her with a gentle firmness that only added to her intoxication.

She came to at dawn, blinking in its light and lying in the wind-dried sand. With one eye open she saw that her pale body was covered in small circles of red. Instead of the tentacle of an octopus at her lips, there were now only questions. To four in particular she would return again and again over the coming days and weeks. Had she dreamed what took place beneath the waves? When the moon was next full, would she dive by its light again? And if she did, would she be diving for pearls, or in the hope of another amorous encounter with the octopuses? Finally – and most vexing of all – what would she tell her husband when she could no longer hide the fact that she was pregnant?

Illustration: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Katsushika Hokusai, from Kinoe no Komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day (or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills)), a three-volume book of shunga erotica first published in 1814. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Love brought me to a silent grove

This is not a diary entry.

Or maybe it is, of a kind.

But it is also me capturing the state of my existence. The state I am in. My existential crisis. An essence of years condensed into a day. A bad day. October 3rd 2016. But it could be October 12th. Or a number of days before those, stretching back over the recent years. One or two after them, too.

I’m sitting here in my lonely room in sunlight. I can see the reflection of my red running top in the white of the virtual page. I have yet to go for my run. I meant to go to the gym, but domestic chores meant that time ran out on that option. Forced into a new routine, to go shopping when I normally would not, I felt and still feel burdened beyond what I can bear to carry. I trailed round the aisles feeling lost and alone and trapped in a life which should feel blessed. And for roughly half the time it does, but when I cannot have what my heart – my whole being – most craves, then nothing will console me, and the ordinariness of the everyday is an affront in its ongoing indication of the absence of the extraordinary. I can’t find ketchup, where the fuck is it? I trail the same aisles over and over, uselessly, until a memory comes to me of a row of shelving at right angles to the majority of the aisles, where all the sauces and pickles are. Eureka, I don’t think, when I finally track it down. I keep hoping that someone will see how lost, alone, miserable and bereft I am, that they will take me in their arms and let me cry it out. Preferably someone whose breasts allow me to imagine, if I close my eyes, that they are hers. How pathetic is that?

In the last few days, I have come as close to not wanting to live as I ever have. At least, that is, I long for the balm of forgetting, I long for some ongoing distraction which will fill my days in a way that I had wished the love of my life would. But I can find nothing that consoles, and plenty which only makes the sense of absence worse. Working to a deadline, reading a book, listening to music, playing sport, drinking with friends, eating curry, watching a film, wanking out the contents of my secret heart, all things in which I have found greater or lesser degrees of pleasure and sustenance in the past – nothing works; or rather, when each of those various activities is over, the absence and the not living the life I wish I was living only assails me all the stronger. Nothing matches what I need it somehow – miraculously – to match.

But this particular day, this particular time… for the first time in decades, I find myself wanting not to exist. I am never going to kill myself. My desire to live is too strong, and my sense of more to come beyond this current crisis is ultimately too buoyant. Tomorrow is another day, another chance. I would never do that to them, to her, just as – having felt the same way – I don’t believe she would ever do it to her kin, or to me.

I wish… I can wish till apples grow on an orange tree, as the song goes in a rather different context, but I’ll never be able to undo the tangle I have made of my life and the living of it. I think I have come to the place she was in some years ago, when our love first became too much for her, when it first truly tested the nature of the life she had built for herself. That is, defeated and unsure, knowing that life cannot continue as it had been, knowing too that what she held was fundamentally good, but still not convinced that life as it stood offered enough, or quite as much as it ought. Quite as much as roughly half the time she needed it to.

I had best go for that run, and see if by some slim chance it helps.


Half an hour later. It did help, in so far as blood was pumped hard round my body, and the body can’t but help feel better for that. My mind is comfortably numbed, and the thoughts within it which were confused and crumpled are smoother, if not ironed flat.

Under a still blue October sky, I saw again the very tree with its uppermost branches dipped in some skyborn confection of brilliant crimson; or, as she put it, the blushing red of autumn in just the top leaves of one singular tree. I saw fly agarics coming through beside the path, where they were when I first photographed them for her all those years ago. I saw the Sleeping Giant’s hills in the distance, as sharply delineated and as clear as I can ever remember seeing them. I saw Virginia creeper setting fire to one side of the fence along what she would call a snicket and we call a twitten.

Perhaps my salvation lies in nature, and in running through it. Just perhaps it does.

And then, after a shower, I realise afresh where salvation lies, if not in love. In writing, where it has always lain for me. For what have I done yesterday and today to avoid the silence but write? And through it come to terms with continuing to breathe, and preparing to lift myself from rock bottom.

In case you ever forget

You weren’t sure why
but it came back to you then
suddenly, unaccountably.
The moments before I left.
In your kitchen of cacti, birds,
breadboards and eggcups
I put on my shoes, bent
down to tie my laces
and the way I did so –
the arch of my back,
the bridge of sighs I made
genuflecting at your feet –
you had to hold back tears.

And so it is with the memory.
I looked so innocent, you said
(though you knew different)
slender, trembling, a hare
powered by nervous energy
yet poised, a mechanism
clockwork-fine and delicate.
How I dropped to my knees –
you could tell I was an athlete
of a kind, just from the motion,
a swift and practiced tying
so I could sprint straight off
ready, , get set, , gone.

There are still so many moments
that we have yet to share.
Like the time I went tenpin bowling.
The friend who’d sent his ball
crashing down the lane with
enviable six foot six strike force
said I was the most graceful
he’d ever seen. Which never squared
with the awkward hefting of
a sphere overheavy for my arm.
Such grace as I had was unconscious,
a care to match motion to eye,
purposeful accident, life colouring birth.

A dozen thoughts ran through
my mind in those kitchen moments
from all we had shared to leaving,
craving to stay, wanting to stall
but having to go.  And go quickly.
Automatic gestures took over –
how you bow a lace, arrange
a scarf, zip a coat, sling a bag.
What you describe sounds like me –
the me I will never see. That it
touched your notice touches mine;
and now I remember you telling me
so that you never have cause to forget.

In absentia

On days like today, when he had nothing in particular to do, and no particular place to go, was in fact to some extent confined in what he could do and where he could go, what was there for him to do but to think of her, to dwell on where she was right then, and whether in spare moments and still or silent times, she had been thinking of him too, remembering back, perhaps even imagining that things were different.

(Not that he did not think of her on busier days, quite the opposite – she continued to be the fine red thread which ran through his every waking hour – but on days like today his mind and heart had the time to wander freely where they most wanted to go, and linger there.)

They were parted, and yet he had the sense that they were not, that even in absentia they remained faithful to the love that they felt for one another, that it could not be broken, that it would go on in spite of themselves, even if it turned out to be the case that they never saw each other again.

He dearly hoped that the sadness of their situation was not undermining her full enjoyment of the moment. If that were so, he would rather that she forgot about him for as long a time as necessary than that she pined for him, truly he would. He wished her not to fret, cry, or tax herself in any way, for come what may, the entirety of his heart would remain hers, and he had long since understood and accepted that it could never be otherwise.

Do not fret, do not cry, do not tax

When he kissed her coin before he pocketed it in the morning, as he still did, as he had done every day without fail since she had gifted it to him, it was a way of summoning her presence. Pressing his lips to the obverse cat, in his mind he said her name, and she came alive there, she inhabited the word and the act of kissing and his interior with what he could only describe as her life-force. He not only saw but felt her, and what he felt was that she was simultaneously feeling him, that they were locked in an endless exchange of looking into each other’s eyes, and that abstract notions of love and desire were as viscerally evident as the physical appearance of conjunctiva, iris and pupil.

From the many such moments they had shared, he had bottled the essence of her in the distillery of his mind. So when his lips met first one and then the other face of the token that she had rendered a charm by kissing both, he felt her actual presence as strongly as if it really were she that he was kissing. And for the next month – indeed, for as long as they were apart – having felt her presence at his lips, he was going to wish her back all the luck, happiness and safe passage that she had wished for him.

Then he would slip the coin which was the essence of her into the pocket-within-the-pocket of his jeans, or next to his heart if his shirt had a place for it, and set about his day, taking her with him wherever he went, and whatever he did.

Passenger seat

On weekend afternoons, he had taken to doing things he would not normally have done then, to keep himself busy. Pruning the ever-seeking tendrils of the wisteria, mowing the lawn, sweeping up leaves. He even went as far as giving the inside of his car a long-overdue clean. And so the cleanliness of his car became associated with her inversely as well as directly. The car in which he had followed her in a mad dash one day, when every minute’s delay meant that they would have one less in which to love each other. The car with the passenger seat upon which he longed to see her sitting. The car in which he wished she might have become his constant companion, formally nicknaming it for him as she had all of her own.


The truth was simpler and because of that, somehow stranger than he had at times imagined.

She confounded him at every turn of the stair. Or he confounded himself. Even after all this time, he still had some learning to do. He needed to listen to the sound of her heart more than the anxieties whispering in his ear, the occasional monster roaring in his mind. It was just that at distance, with so little to go on, he couldn’t always hear it beating, and caught in a sudden downpour, the worst thoughts flooded his head. But even before they spoke again, he had bucketed the water away, cleared out the wreckage, and wiped clean the surfaces.

There was no limit to their intimacy. What others might find shocking, they admitted frankly. So she told him that when she made love to her husband, there wasn’t a time that she didn’t think of him, at some point during or after, of him and of how different it would be. He told her that in the same circumstance with his wife, there wasn’t a time that he didn’t have to shut her out of his mind beforehand, because to let her remain there where she was otherwise permanently encamped would be disastrous.

But they remained apart, unable to pursue what they might wish to, were their hearts free to do so. This was the sorrow of their lives. The price they had to pay, the chill that autumn brought.

She told him that there was a soppy song she had been listening to of late, one which made her think of him. She was embarrassed to admit what it was, but he prised it out of her. It was a well-known song. He thought the trick with standards was to try and listen to them as if you were the first person ever to hear it – or, in his case, on this occasion, the second. To get back to the time before the song became burdened with its celebrity, its being overly familiar, a hoary old chestnut.

He listened to the song and he heard what she heard, he felt what she felt. He knew that the lyric worked both ways, for her and for him. He surrendered to the emotion as she had before him, and it joined the pantheon of songs which they had made their own.

Between them, if a song fitted, if the emotion of it served to bind the one to the other, they suspended the judgment of taste. Cool critical favourite or cheesy middle of the road, no matter. Which was not to say that there weren’t some cool critical favourites floating in their cloud. But one thing he had learned, one thing she had taught him was that in matters of the heart at least, feeling counted for more than discernment.