Old Wives’ Tales

Old Wives’ Tales

It is said that she spat

into the native’s eye

into the strange brew she

stirred with her stranger tongue

and how I long to taste

that blend of sweat and saliva


It is said that she spurned her homeland

burnt the house she grew up in

turned her back on all she knew

and didn’t know

except for the copper kettle

and the milking cow


It is said that she sifted

through the embers of her life

drawing her thoughts in charcoal

long after the fire had died


I say she did the right thing

I say she knew what she was doing

when they told her to be silent in church

and she stopped attending

she could be silent anywhere


And her silence spread

quicker than gossip

across the seven seas

for this silence knew

how she’d refused to be

as mum as nature

Going round the yellow-brick bend


Several years ago, in a writing class, we were assigned to write about ‘Yellow’. I decided to journey the Circle Line and record my thoughts & observations as I passed through 37 underground stations.

Embankment: Eastbound. 3 pm. Last carriage near the dirt-cream concertina connector. Please mind The Gap between the train and the platform. Temple: The Gap Line and what? Blackfriars: Don’t step over the yellow line lest you fall into the gap. All lettering on signs, whether warnings or instructions, are yellow. Mansion House: Two chatterboxes wearing church-going hats. A stout man chews in the way a cow chews cud. Items trapped in the doors causes delay. Cannon Street: Reflection in the dark, gritty windows: I’ve been beheaded. Monument: Obstructing the doors can be dangerous. Tower Hill: Support poles and railings are yellow. Kids go free. Aldgate: Oranges and Lemons said the bells of St Clements. Was that about child sacrifice or public executions? Liverpool Street: The lull of the carriage…rock-a-bye. Always has that effect. A sweaty man in a too-tight grey suit and green tie. I hope he doesn’t sit next to me. Moorgate: Two standing girls giggle in a kind of English that has no fixed abode. Barbican: Unbearable! I’m breathing him in! Farringdon: A bit of daylight. The chatterboxes get off. (The chewer got off at Liverpool Street.) A brunette with perfect pink toenails peeping out of strappy sandals. Sweaty man stares at her cleavage. Kings Cross St Pancreas: Sweaty man gets off. Euston Square: It would be easy to get off now, forget all about the yellow. Great Portland Street: The rear doors will not open at the next station. Please use the other doors. Baker Street: Swarm of bees buzzing in my head instead of thoughts…dozing off…Edgware Road: So much yellow on the map. Paddington: This is not a true circle. It’s the straight bit, the gap in my journey, which I have to mind. A little girl in a yellow dress is crying. Poor Alice in Underland. Royal Oak: Graffiti on wall shouts Go home wanker. Who is the wanker that has to go home? Westbourne Park: Yellow nose of train nudges into station. Ladbrooke Grove: Loud-mouthed man and female companion. What a lot of tattoos they have between them. Her skin looks jaundiced. He doesn’t want to go to Hammersmith, apparently. Latimer Road: It’s hard to think outside his voice. A hive of people on the platform. Wood Lane: What a great way to travel, if you’re a mole. Shepherds Bush Market: Loud man says to girl: ‘How dare you fucking tell me what to do’. I look away. Gold Hawk Road: Loud-mouthed man and ear-bashed companion get off still squabbling. A banana skin on the platform right now could prove fatal. Hammersmith: A stretch of the legs. Yellow is not my favourite colour!

(Here I have to return along the straight bit of the Circle Line to Paddington. Too much repetition to worth noting anything.)

Paddington: Last carriage again. Being held at a red signal, awaiting the yellow. ‘East of the sun and west of the moon.’ Love that song, never remember all the words. Got nothing to do with yellow. Bayswater: Concentrate: in yellow: 16:20:10. In yellow: Please keep your belongings and clothing clear of the doors. Notting Hill Gate: A man with one of those Marie Curie daffodils in his green lapel. Sheer coincidence. High Street Kensington: ‘yellow and green must never be seen/but green and yellow is truly mellow,’ a motherism I can’t get out of my head. Gloucester Road: I could say my favourite fruit is pineapple, but it wouldn’t be true. South Kensington: Mobile phones are like comfy blankets. How people cling to them. Sloane Square: Applying make-up would be easier than trying to write on here. Victoria: The chairs are new, a deep blue background with purples, greens and yellows shaped into oblongs. St James’s Park: Ode to lying in the grass and counting buttercups. Westminster: It’s taken one hour 45 minutes. That’s one hour 45 minutes I’ll never get back. Embankment: I’m definitely not a Dorothy. I’m just that wanker that needs to get home before I go round the yellow brick bend.

Flower Study

Flower Study (after a visit to Keats House, Hampstead Heath)

Insanity has no season,

it wears no mask of life or death,

but waits behind plate glass

among wedding silks and widow’s weeds

that burst with dreams and barge into memories,

leaving me with nothing but a sense of unease.


If I could lie beneath the sheets,

among the mint-cool muscles of his mattress,

feel that dark stem pulling me down

towards glades of sleep,

then I, too, could be half in love with life.


Instead I settle by the plum tree,

remembering the hum of sunrise,

the subtle tears of the crestfallen.


A gallery of flowers along a white-washed wall:

Corn Lilly, Harlequin, Primula, Chilli,

all utterly lost to the poet’s disease.


It is not just the old that cling to mementoes

(as though they have more to be mournful about),

I, too, am water-coloured,

a washed out version of my once-upon-a-self,

knowing what it’s like to be mad,

stripped of dignity, dancing on the Heath.


For in the silence of 4 a.m.

I listen to the song of daisies

singing from the field,

true to their word,

before turning to seed.



(Another poem inspired by Frida Kahlo, who wrote: Fear and pain and desire and death are all part of your existence’)

Red! Ah yes, that mulish blush,

That cruel hyphen flanked by birth and death

And dripping with the detritus of both.

Red is red, red is blue, red is the flowering of pain born anew.


Red, a hybrid deer

Fed with two arrows from Eros

Who shoots milk into her wedding dress

(He’s a wet nurse and a traitorous pet).

I was wounded twice, once in the heart, once in the head,

these are the reddenings I’d rather forget.


Red is the Judas doll that burns in Easter’s flames.

Red is the red-green parrot rapt in a cage.

It’s the juicy offerings of an artist in pain.

It’s the stains on the sheets where we lay our blame.

Red is red, red is blue, red is the flowering of pain borne anew.


What did Red give me?

The first signs of a ruined life and

A shepherd’s sky in the cold light of night.

I was wounded twice, once in the heart, once in the head,

these are the reddenings I’d rather forget.

(More from) ‘The Human Race’, ch. 5: City

The Human Race Chapter 5: City


Pigeons peck at the heart of a city that beats no stronger than the heart of a lover I met on Tinder (his name is lost in the ethers of love). They dive into the dirt-brown Thames, into a shiver of litter and light.


The park sparkles with a soirée of flies, a penny-filled pond and a stipple of sun.


In Trafalgar Square, heroes cast shadows over my lungs.

Alabaster women break wind.

Bins are filled with a debris of cravings

and empties are left on benches and curbs.


I stroll along a bridge that spans all possibilities. I breathe in petrol fumes, hotdogs and burnt nuts. I catch the eye of a living statue (and avoid the Eye that vies for attention).

I speak to the Big Issue guy. ‘I’m up on my luck,’ he says.

I want a trinket or talisman: a friendship bracelet, a soap-on-a-rope, a dome, an ugly shell.


Through Leicester Square, amid a host of awkward angles, an artist fills the pavement with crayons of light.

A busker sings ‘Londonderry Air’.

A Christian shouts: Are you a sinner or a winner?

Someone else says, ‘Leaves, like tourists, come and go. Birds sound sweeter where Plane trees grow. These streets are paved with shit, not gold. All will be sold for a song.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I reply. ‘This light is dun, these buildings dun, the people undone, unravelling themselves night after night. Soon, the road-sweepers will come and streetlamps will force the dark out of hiding.’


The Price We Pay

This is a little response to the bodged politics we’ve been experiencing for the last year or so…

The Price We Pay

In deadly night’s shade,

before light shone on both sides of the Eurotunnel,

vision was denounced in an endless jeremiad.


Eyelids closed against the sun

as it glisten on a splenetic lobster

probing about in the darkness of its case.


Light serrates…

And the literati play with words

received through tufts of hair, not ears.


The hanging judge burns all prose

(purple and otherwise),

strings us up and along as though

it is better to boil lobsters alive

beneath the naked light bulb

than when our backs are turned.


Wise women and the rights of men,

wide cracks in pavements

full of shit and chat from the gutter press.


Yet we, too, have become superselves,

scornful of gravity,

too bright for the sun saturating our skin.

Extricated from within,

we step down from the shelves

we were once put upon.

Thinking about Frida Kahlo

This poem is as much personal as it is about my impressions of the fabulous Frida Kahlo.

Thinking about Frida Kahlo

She is never complete,

depleting those velvet dresses

with sterile lubricants.


I read between the lines

of her severed face,

see how that virile column

holds together her broken self,

how still life becomes her.


Behind erotica’s plumage

the internal plumbing is enough

to make any stomach sink

to the pit of itself.


Her ovum inflates

as it hatches into iconism,

all it takes is a few nips and tucks

in a bunk bed she shares with death.


Lust is suspended

inside her incisive frame.


She prefers pain,

wearing blood beads about her neck

and stern baubles in her ears,

she cries glycerol tears.


She defers pain

even as it is nailed

tactfully into her split self.