More than silver more than gold


Its the first day that The Promise, the picture book I’ve done with illustrator Laura Carlin is out in the world. I want to write a post about it…about how it came to be written and all the strands that were drawn together for me by creating that text, but there isn’t time today. I’m at a tipping point with the novel I’m writing, Lost and Found and today it needs to be pushed past and into the last, hopefully easier-to-write, third of the story.

So here are some poems instead…mostly animal ones…a dragon fly, a puffin and a dragon, but one more that doesn’t quite fit the category. I wrote it ages ago when I did a writing workshop at Keats’ House in London. I was raised on John Keats’ poems. My father – born in 1916 – was of a generation of Welsh schoolchildren who had to learn huge poems by heart, and he took to it with a deep delight in the sound and pattern of language. As a very small child I would sit on the edge of the bath watching him shave and he’d recite ‘Ode to Autumn’ or to a nightingale, stopping to repeat lines and savour their feel and sound. I still love those poems and carry them with my in my heart. I think it was Helen Dunmore that wrote about the portability of poems; and its true. You can’t carry a whole book in your head but you can carry a poem, and once it’s in there it starts to change your psychic ecology. The poems and the songs that I know and can call up whenever I want are my most valuable possessions. One of my recent acquisitions, June Tabor’s version of ‘The Dream Factory’ describes the value of this internal dreaming life. I can’t yet sing it all the way through without crying, and remembering my dad, shaving brush under his chin saying ‘thou  wast not born for death immortal bird, no hungry generations tread thee down..’

My father taught me how to sing,

To sing that dreams are everything,

Can’t be bought and can’t be sold

More than silver, more than gold.

On Visting Keats’ House With A Class of Fine Children


Dear John

We visited your house today

Not the Swan and Hoop where you were born,

With hoofbeats clattering the cobbles and the creak of wheels.

Not your Granny’s house in the woods and meadows

Of old, wild Middlesex.

Not the apprentice room above the surgery,

Or the students’ lodging near the hospital,

Where you lay awake with blood and crying in your head.

No. We visited you last house, on the Heath,

Where you found a wider sky to walk under,

Crickets chiruping by the Winter fireside

Nightingales in Summer dusks,

And love, of course.


We weren’t invited,

But we thought you wouldn’t mind

If we sat in your study

In the chair, placed just as you left it,

Looked through your window at the sky.

We walked around your bed;

Was it so high and fluffy, John,

When you were here?

We wondered if you had to run and jump to go to sleep,

And if, when you were ill,

Your bed was just too high.


It was dry today, and being Summer

We went into your garden

And tried to look as you once looked

With hearts as open as our eyes,

Noticing the details:

The shiney stripes of bark,

The minute patterning of grass blades

The sunlight and the shadows

And the wind in the trees,

Like change.


And things have changed John.

Middlesex is banker country now,

No woods,  just roads and concrete

And shops that sell a world of nonsense.

There hasn’t been a nightingale in Hampstead

Since the war we call ’the last’,

Though why I can’t imagine,

Since it seems the fighting never stops.


You might not even know your house,

A grand room stands where your back door was

And there’s a sort of shop,

Where Mrs Brawne sat darning stockings.

Your stairs have gone,

There’s no real kitchen

And the view beyond the garden’s blocked with houses.


But there are some good things:

The wall that divided you from Fanny’s been demolished,

It’s all one big space, that you could share;

Just a street away the hospital could cure your illness,

We understand tuberculosis now

We have its number, we’re on its trail

It doesn’t win the way it used to do.

The medicine you left behind moved on.

In my class no one died from whooping cough or scarlatina

Polio and measles don’t maim and blind,

The poor don’t die of cholera, but boredom

And everyone can learn to read and write.


And John, one other thing, it’s the reason

We didn’t need an invite to your home.

Anyone can come here now,

Other lives and ghosts have left their mark but

It’s your good spirit that they come for,

And your face that looks down from every wall.

You’re famous John,

Your words weren’t written on the water,

They’ve travelled round the word, engraved on hearts

My own included.

Your deathless nightingale, your loitering knight,

Your season of mists, go with me

And millions like me, everywhere.

Just like you said

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Its loveliness increases

It will never pass into nothingness.

So as we left your house

We crushed lavender between our palms

And remembered you.





Dragon Fly

It’s an odd apprenticeship

Terrorising tadpoles

In the pond’s murk.


Forget princes, crowns and swordfights,

Your trade here is water fleas,

Hog-lice, sticklebacks.


There’s no treasure to be won, no gold.

Just silver bells of spider silk,

Necklaces of toad spawn.


Fire won’t light underwater

So your killing’s done stone cold,

Just grab and smash.


Each body contributes to your bulk,

And you shed your tight skin

Only to outgrow another.


The seasons pass, years too,

In twilight, slaughter, ruthless growth,

Without fairy tales.


Is it true you’ll split

Your dull costume and fly off,

Igniting in the sunshine?



Parrot beaked

Flipper winged

I fly through the sea


Zip! Zip!

I row my body

Easy as sunlight


Down where

The sand eels shivver

Into my grasp.


Up now,

That’s the hard part,

Flying in thin air.


Tired out,

I drop under the thrift

With my silver whiskers.

The Black Ram


After the blizzard

Frost fell silent

To grip the snow


Nothing spoke or moved

Save the old ram,

Growling and butting.


A mad speck of black

In all the white

Fighting death.


Smashing frozen drifts

With spiral horns

Like galaxies.


Exploding walls of ice

In broken showers

Like stars,


He freed his five ewes

And lead them bleating,

Down the hill.


It was his last fight

His bones bleach white

On the hillside.


His wool makes birds’ nests.

Under the long grass

His horns curl.


But down the cwm

Ten new lambs drop,

In the bluebells.



The Cave


I didn’t choose to go inside,

The rain and lightening drove me

And I had a torch


At first, I was afraid,

But my beam found only darkness

And a few bones.


The air was hot as breath.

It smelt of struck matches

And roast lamb.


There was no dampness

No dripping stalactites, just dry stone

And sand underfoot.


Wearily I sank down,

The wall worn smooth behind my head

And like a pillow.


I dreamed of fire,

Warm and red in the stormy night

And of wings, enfolding.


At dawn, I crept away,

And left behind the great, soft breathing,

The scatter of scales.




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