The poemsSwitching Soles
It begins in a church
beneath Tryfan’s solemn altar,
the sun’s halo sits heavy,
tipped back on her crown.
A sheep astray is not granted to see
her ageless lines,
the cracks in her face,
which has borne so many vortices:
wave on wave of vicious rain.
Experienced on a bicycle,
the lightweight shoes are orange,
accustomed to their owner’s shapes,
his gait, his jagged,
frost-shattered nails; his momentum.
But they have an unexpected task,
a sudden challenge;
they shiver with uncertainty
around his swollen feet.
The old boots came striding,
the old boots scuffling went:
the clay streams of Brecon
dented their hefty competence -
now they turn on the walker,
now they carve his skin,
like slabs after earthquakes, deconstructed
over someone’s dying frame.
They are destroyed by nature’s
The stove is lit. Dinner is squeezed out
into a small pan. Ten minutes later
he eats with a Spork, ingenious,
plastic, evolution of evolution
of a primary need.
He curls up in a sleeping-bag
that is not warm enough.
He prays. It begins
in a green canvas church.
Surrounded by the massive dark
he asks for strength
to gain the slopes,
to drive his muscles onwards;
for faith to find footfalls
on the smooth, spiked stones;
for his orange, lightweight shoes
to rise to the occasion,
just as the sleepless sun lifts itself up
each day over the sombre hills.
Like an old wizard’s creased hat
it sits appointed, holding back the clouds;
guardian of Llyn Llydaw, whose haze
stretches up from the damselfly water
like so many grateful hands;
a red ridge admitting only the fearful.
Below chugs a train of bravado, steaming
towards Snowdon’s pyramid showcase.
In their line he stands at the centre,
deciding whose holds to follow,
which ruts to step in. Sometimes
he looks to the rearguard, calls out
a warning, sounds out progress:
Loose rocks here guys, so
watch yourselves. It matters that he says it,
not whether they listen.
Looking down he sees one
giant crystal of iron-shot slate;
upwards pokes the false
summit which marks the arête.
He looks at her, two clambers up,
heading for the knife’s edge.
He knows it’s there - in his greatest
dreams he’s fallen from it
and she’s become a cotton-wool cushion,
carried him softly down to the packed
sand of the lake’s shore.
In his greatest dreams he’s fallen with her.
At the ledge that was earlier a point:
a quick breather, a plash of water
from a sunburned bottle, then one foot down,
one hand onwards, test the spike, does it wobble?
(Will he?), swing round the aft-leg, find a shelf,
nail it down, this the stretch of sheerness –
he can’t stop to sleep, or turn round because
the queue pumps liked piped sausage,
and he wouldn’t ever go
back to the lower slopes –
he is tasting chiselled air and
oh, how fine a dust it is.
Only the Pinnacles remain.
He grits his feet and pulls
up through the clefts,
right onto the tops.
She was there on the blade
but they won’t make the final
she goes round the side.
Some minutes later he knows
she will sit close by, staring
straight through him because
he chose his own path,
because he stood on different earth,
because he’s staring straight
through her, back at the red
ridge guarding lake from cloud.
The Ridge Of The Dish
Two flat-faced, huge pebbles, one smooth-topped, one grainy;
he grinds out wheat into husky flour, brushes it
into his oily, iron pot with steely hand.
He mixes the solids with water he collected overnight
in a passing storm; adding yeast, he covers the pot,
then covers this with his boar-skin cloak.
It is the start of his fuel-making. Later he will march on it,
his previous fist of bread finished this morning, as Dawn
scattered her rose-petals across the halcyon lake.
A Hercules, his cohort calls him, but he is stronger: lions hide;
snakes quake; giants cower. He wears his cognomen with pride:
Laborius, slow to speak, quick to heave shoulder.
This is a good barracks, he tells himself: good stones;
easy to defend. A few resent the station, speared with cold,
but he does not cheer their complaint.
Exercise: he tests the nails of his boots by twisting his coiled fingers
hard against them; they resist. He picks off some slate,
packs it on his slab of a back, this the first mining of the mountain.
He trots the north face to the summit, back via the south screes,
zigzagging up to the Ridge of the Dish,
and back down to the lake; zigzagging to the rim of the dish,
and all the way down to the waterside, as nimble as Tryfan's
quizzical goats, as light of foot as if his sandals
were shoed with cotton wool.
He does this each morning after cookery: it's a solid routine
with room for variations - rigidly wielding his shield in testudo forms;
hurling a sharpened pilum at a vagabond beast.
I watch, wondering why this tiger of a man
observes these rituals; but not wondering too long,
for I must make plans for the long trek east.
Time makes wild things move their lairs, changes
the habitats of all prey, forces men to new garrisons; they abandon homes -
even those of wood and natural streams.
Time sounds for the soldier of the Twentieth, married to military life:
we obey because we want to: assuming position in line,
we march on…
to where? It matters not - a place that ends in a
hesitation, an -um, another camp, another kiln fired each day
by someone too skilled to raise a sword.
Time leaves only names: the Ridge of the Dish;
the Twentieth's Cairn, made flesh by soldiers - not icicled heroes -
fighters commemorating frontier-time,
and in these piled-up rocks and jagged handholds I grasp
a rough loaf of bread; a millstone; or here the well-kept head of a javelin,
or there the pitted tusk of a mascot boar.
Ah Lydia! if you could see these men, their dedication, you would be
jealous that I spend my time here, away, where centuries from now
people will fall in and out of each other, and lose their love.
I’m smoking on the summit, your letters
in my hand. I tear them into snowflakes
and scatter them across the all-inferior land.
I look in your direction back
along the ridge, swatting
the attentions of each irritating midge
on Snowdon’s slatey slopes;
where all my hopes rose up,
kissed the air and made a silent,
You’re coming up the mountain, your hands
are waving pleas. You gather up the snowflakes
that I sent upon the thin, invisible breeze.
You lick each paper fragment,
adhesive of your lips glues us back
together, despite our faults and slips
on Snowdon’s slatey slope;
where lovers grope the stony ladder
or shaky scree, and whisper forever
you and me.
The Sun Never Sleeps
Square black holes lead into the mines,
tunnels deep-space-dense with times,
where men went to pull mountains inside out
for their useful things.
Small mouths whisper
from the hills, escape routes,
for mountains feel
themselves being endoscopied,
they lose their patience,
rain down anger,
Headwalls are uneven around the exits,
pillars piled without precision
by the hastiness of men, fearing
they would need the holes again.
An almighty waterfall -
a scaled-up garden feature,
a titan’s tears:
mountains lived under the sea
still they love the ocean
coming from below, or above
from the sky,
their prettiest tattoos –
wild flowers –
the sea’s descendants.
Mountains are forever grateful
so they build great outlets,
of stone, for water
to dance around, a place
for tears to play.
Ice was all the Earth,
its nails gouging rock:
trowelling in clay soil.
After ice had fled,
left basins intact,
future times would learn
lessons of its power.
There is power too in these times
when the world grows
suddenly tired of smiling:
angry clouds beset its brow;
then too, the colder power of silence
when grey mist descends to stop people
seeing clearly into each other:
the cataracts of dark power,
the parachutes of silence.
But there is also you behind the sealed eyelid
like a welcome speck of grit,
the last foreign body to slither
inside before the doors shut;
you stole all the forgotten smiles,
so you could wear all the bright faces
that the world cast off.
As quickly as, one moment, we were gambolling
up and down grassy banks, bathing in cool trickles
between pebbles rolling in the moist pathside,
the next moment mist finally breached Crib Goch -
which had held it back for the whole of the day –
then charged from the jagged rampart,
headlong down the rusting flank.
It enveloped the Miners’ Track
in chilling solitude.
All evening, all night we huddled together,
wedged in a crumbling hollow of bricks,
sucking up strands of frosty water.
You kept me awake and saved me –
teaching me of rainbows and the shapes of the moon;
mimicking the songs of garden birds.
You held my heavy morale on your shoulders,
even as night snows tore frayed strips
off us in a blistering wind.
The sun never sleeps,
and when the sky came back
a blinding flash swept us
away in a whirlwind
of silver light.
Stuck in the same smouldering shoes,
perched at a smoke-filled bar,
one eye on a football game whose teams he doesn’t follow,
the other on a table where no one talks,
lost in their own recollections
while chewing on a rusty side of beef,
he is bored of damp, pungent,
muddy tobacco rolled like poles
in the stowed canvas of a tent;
dissatisfied with sport;
hungry for another journey.
He tells one other person: I’m going for a walk.
It’s more of a hobble: overnight
he has aged, become a senior,
stiff and serene like a veteran
who once filed the years away
with his memories, and now files
away his memories with the years.
He watches the sinewy triathletes:
they flow rigidly like late Hellenic statues;
they strain within themselves
to reach the next metre.
He wasn’t searching, but there it stands:
its roof of slate absorbing the clouds,
wedged against the dark Sunday sky
like an ornamental Snowdon.
He remembers infantile times:
stolen cider taken to a graveyard,
the no one will find us here
always overtaken by the sense of standing
under God’s slowly-disapproving fist;
then it resolved into a beckoning finger,
but still the door was always locked.
Maybe because of his age, maybe just because
this time he asked permission first,
but the door creaks, reverberates,
dustily swings open. Inside is a
small wooden organ, pipes of old, shallow breath;
pulpit without microphone,
as if the last ever priest delivered
his sermons at a whisper;
rose window drained of colour,
petals pallid in the evening’s greys;
atoms of silence dancing through his ears.
So now he kneels - it takes several moments:
a creaking knee, an nth of a groan.
The chapels are empty like chambers
in a long-forgotten heart, one that gave up needing.
He thinks there are so many things to say,
but he limits himself to Thank you,
because the only listener knows all the stories
already, like a man stuck through time
in the same smouldering bar,
following football games
whose teams he doesn’t follow.
Come down, come down to the sea, my love,
down from the whippeting snows:
I’m ready to wrap you in my foam.
And what have you learned, exiled in the hills;
what have you proved and whom have you taught?
Only that climbing into a cloud is the same
as a cloud collapsing upon you; only
the stony expression of no one, looking
for the answers you thought you might find
wandering blind in the lash of the snows.
Come down to the sea, come down, my love,
Come down to me, come down.