Members Poems 2004

Winter issue

Theme: Red Letter Days
Judge: Carole Satyamurti


The Curtain

It was how we knew you'd be born at home

after all: when the waters broke and the midwife said,

You're going to need a curtain at that window,

for in the new and unused room there were only folds of muslin.

Someone found the cloth of bluish-purple silk,

hitched it up against the night sky

and the neighbours' eyes. We lit the lamp.

The room was dim and warm and smelt of lavender.


All that hot night long we wracked each other's

bodies, you and I, hours and hours of it,

and it must have been four or five in the morning

when I saw, through the tear in the makeshift curtain,

the sky begin to lighten, dawn coming, and they said to

push, and we pushed, and I fixed my eye

on that rent in the curtain, the crack

of lightening sky, moving from a violet-grey

towards soft blue, a way of knowing

that time was passing, that the day,

the day of your birth, was on its way –

and then it must have been sixish,

in the gash of sky the blue was deeper,

and how we pushed, you fumbling out through that

cloth of flesh, as though you were smothered in

velvets, looking for a chink of light, edging your way

towards it, and I, I was trying to get you there,

heaving you out, your matted head ripping through silk

and then the slither of your little body and I looked upon you

as your blue eyes gazed about you

at so much light.




A summer morning. A girlchild suckling.

A flurry of midwives clearing up. And only that slit

of light to show that it was well past dawn. Later,

when I saw the whole skyful, lit by the bright hot sun,

the blue so vast and raw, the light so fierce

after the night in the dim-lit room,

I blinked with the shock of it –


as if I had not seen a morning sky before,

as if love were a pool

I had only dipped a finger in

and now it drenched me in its blue.





Not even the faintest mark on the calendar, yet

the date throbs, pulsing, knowing

its purpose. It's lined up, in the sights,

all its routes mapped out; a day

gliding smoothly up on impressive tyres,

right on target. All the precision

of an oiled gun.


There will only be one day like this.


This is the day they'll always remember –

where they were, the weather,

how the pavements looked, how the sky

angled and tipped and buckled.

Make it red. Red.




Fish Festival


It's raining fish and I've hardly noticed before

how beautiful fish can be, smooth rainbow trout, fish dressed by Lacroix,

shimmering star fish,

celebrity fish in lemon party dresses.


A shoal of angel fish fluttering their fans has

floated down, gold and pink pursued by electric rays

with a spinning spiral of candle-fish behind them,

gourami, parrot fish, goldfish, redfish, searobin.


Watching the display from my high window

I'm tempted by lantern fish at the glass to try

the garden for a closer look, but I won't risk it.

With my luck they'd turn into a load of old leaves.



This is going to be one of those days

when I don't cry. I've had

five out of thirty-one

without any tears. Not even

that faint, annoying prick

you sense at the back of the eyes.


I'm not going to listen to Handel's

Where'er you walk, or gaze

at certain photographs,

or play that video

which is trapped, and rotates in my head.


And if I get to six

p.m., I'll pour a drink,

congratulating myself

on having come so far.

It's not quite over. In bed

I'll pick up something light

and relaxing. Another day.  



Red letter days

The saints are singing

from their calendar recesses

because you say


in England there are hyacinths

lilies of the valley

ladybirds returning home


transparent travel wings spread wide

trailing a tissue

of insubstantial memories.


Here I have become a knight

gathering round my bed

this cloaked mosquito netting


suspended from its canopied roof

like a tent

on a mediaeval battlefield


for the enemy is gathering,

polishing its weaponry and long noses

bodies already weighted


with blood, my blood.

They will be foiled

from further victories


for I am shielded

by the comfort of your letter

by your thoughts from home


by this fine white gauze trailing me

like travel wings

of English ladybirds.




Winter Walk

Even the sun looks doubtful –

its silver face mistaken

for the moon that will rise soon

crab-apple hovering

over fallow fields

where abandoned tractors sprawl

like giant spiders

fossilled in the tomb of winter.


I am getting better acquainted

with this static season –

no red letter day on the calendar

or news to tell a friend,

suspended, like fruit in a jelly,

between two generations.


Everything looms grey –

distant objects reverse

with those close-up

and shadows merge into the gloom of someone once like me.


Time hangs like a limp flag

when I ride my life at walking pace. Nearer home a street light flickers on, off,

then struggles on again

grinning like a conman in a smoky room.



Spring issue

Theme: Changing Shape
Judge: Sarah Wardle
After a first reading, the pile changed shape and shrank. After several re-readings, twelve poems stood out by very real poets, these six and John Adcock's 'Ultrasound', Kathleen Kummer's 'Boat on My Windowsill', Pam Green's 'Resounding Change', Sally Clark's 'Changing Shape', Matthew Friday's 'The Bubble' and Miranda Cichy's 'Changing Shape'.



Shaping Up

Now when I was young and raw in the grim workshops

around the Humber Docks and serious as the day was long,

the lights along the quay side dismal, life let me survive somehow

almost unnoticed. About the ship repair yard I was

"Sproggy" – dogsbody – the new boy to shout, "Hey you! – Look out!"

With a wonderful freedom round the dingy works and drab streets,

each mission a voyage of discovery as a child taking first steps.


The canteen was the best place: bacon muffins, shepherd's pie,

mouth watering smells lingering in the warmth of the kitchen,

double boilers bubbling over coal gas flames, life with steamy air and,

almost unnoticed by the turbaned girls, the sound of steel

studded boots chattering chequered plate steps from Neptune Street;

men queuing with trays of billycans for tea and dripping toast,

their break time passing too quickly in an oasis of relative peace.


Boiler Shop life is bedlam – drumfire, ear splitting noise:

drilling, grinding, riveting, caulking, enormous boilers . . .

Deaf workmen with greasy caps, baggy boiler suits and steel toecaps

call out chicken when you put cotton wool in ringing ears.

You talk with the body: hands, arms, head, feet, and finger tips.

You read lips – and need waxed up ears syringing clean every month

to hear yourself praying before deafening sleep each night.


The Fitting Shop was like a cathedral with huge ship's engines,

long benches, and giant doors that slid open on rollers.

There were machine tools: milling, spinning, sliding, shearing –

heaving swarf that spins and curls across oily duckboard like

steel cotton wool; coolant spurting – squirting – cooling carbide tips;

turners in navy dungarees standing hypnotised with feed and speed

and the need to work to a tolerance of 'one thou'.


The Stores: an Aladdin's cave where George and Ben the first aid men

kept everything from taps to tin. When George took out my eye

he used a match to roll up the lid, another to scrape out a splinter,

while Ben held me in a half nelson under the light-bulb. George was

also known for his skill with crushed fingernails, piercing mine and

squeezing out blood – as I went wild. "Always fancied a surgeon's

life," he growled, smiling at the point of his rusty knife.


I don't give a damn for those long, grey days that shaped me

for a roll that swallowed my soul like a charcoal cloud.

I burn on like the sun, ever rising – never clocking on nor off.

Almost unnoticed I keep celestial time, often looking back

to when I sought solace and the gentle comfort of the night.



Extensions of Man

The Hand. Lying there, eyes closed

let your right hand float free of the duvet,

fingers pulling beyond their normal reach.

Thin, wiry, prehensile, it scales the curtains

negotiates the barely open window, feels


its way up the slates to the ridge, abseils

down the drainpipe to grasp and probe

among the night creatures of the shrubbery.

Let it return gently, slowly, to the bed's

warmth, clutching a fresh, pungent leaf.


The Eye. Lie still, resist the dangerous

temptation to move. The eye slithers

cautiously across your cheek, along the bed,

down to the floor, across the carpet's stubble,

through the door. Glistening in moonlight,


an unshelled mollusc on an attenuated

umbilical cord of optic nerve. Vision

jerks like a faulty television, there's a risk

of sudden blindness, but in the ecstasy,

the rush of seeing, this is forgotten.





I have a rare and unusual skill.

I can disguise myself as an alien,

almost any species in the Galactic

Federation, not just impersonate them

with robes, latex, & prosthetics,

but actually becoming that being

for up to one day of their time.

Of course the first time I 'do'

an alien, I need the co-operation

or assistance of one of the species,

but after that they become part

of my ever-growing repertoire.

Naturally this may cause them

some distress, disorientation,

or even what we know as death,

but fortunately on most planets

there are places where prejudice

is allowed, and anyway if they chose

to drink in that sort of bar

what did they expect? You can

call me shapeshifter if you like

but not mutant, werewolf, vampire,

unless you're reckless by nature.

I'm going to kill you anyway,

Comrade, I have been well paid

by one of the Causes you betrayed.

Actually I poisoned your drink

10 minutes ago; your credit cards

will buy my flight off this planet.

It is time to disguise myself.




Changing Shape

Her passport describes her

as five feet three

but that was fifty years ago

when she was as slim

as an iris

with a river of red hair.


Now the stem of her spine

has shrunk, she barely

measures four foot ten.

Slack flesh hangs

from her manicured hands.

Her lillied feet are bunioned


and the fairytale hair

clings like white wisps

of sheep's wool to her pink scalp.

She is doll-like

swathed in cardigans

layered in petticoats and pleated skirts


and as I lift her

into the wheel chair

I feel the bud of her small body





Dog Person


my biggest fear on becoming the wolfman

lycanthrope & Beast of Bodmin, was

not a full moon in the Lupus constellation,

nor the blood & gore, the silver bullet,

the fleas & the ticks & the worming tablets, not

the catcher from the pound, the have-a-go hero,

nor the fact that in the sun i cast no shadow, no

my biggest fear was getting older than my years

with progeria, or Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome,

not the tufts of hair on my shoulder, neck & ears,

but the age-difference between us exponentially growing

one to the power of seven, recurring;


& though to disprove old Wittgenstein's theory

i'll eagerly await your arrival next Wednesday,

be there with your slippers, the post & papers,

by then, by my reckoning, i'll be several months older

yet disproportionately no wiser,

& it'll be too late to teach me new tricks:

to fetch the Andrex, fly a Sputnik,

leap through burning hoops at Crufts,

or to offer a sop to Cerberus;


so love, save the daylight, procrastinate the night;

put ahead the clocks to British Summertime;

check with the almanac for any metaphysical

event: plague of darkness or total eclipse

of the 'kind, old sun' by the lunatic moon;

mush to the Arctic where it's always noon;

& heliopause the Lamp of Phoebus, set

the morning star, not the evening Venus

as our sign of the zodiac, sign of the cross


… but don't turn your back on me, love




The Making of David

(After Michelangelo)


The careful calculation of where the skin

slid into muscle, of where the muscle

imprisoned the bone, like a winter snake

used to weathering. Wrestling with the intractable

Carrarian block; slowly letting the head rear

like a wild horse from the calm reins of stone;

brought by horse-drawn barge from the dark vaults

of the Tuscan hills, where it had laid for centuries

under the lavishment of cold moons.


He lets the chisel skim the surface of the stone

tracking the riddle of weather into the furrow-folds

of thought, the marble, fault lined of variable density,

split from the dark fissures the atavistic act;

making him blow by blow; the hammer blows of the heart,

sounding out the rhythms of blood, the veins holding the light,

the glistening bone sheen of the marble.



Summer issue

Theme: "Prehistory"
Judge: Selima Hill

Writing is getting a sheet of white paper and banging your forehead against it till it bleeds. Douglas Adams' idea, not mine, but as a writer I couldn't agree more. As a reader, however, I was looking for something less horizontal; for something uplifting, upbeat – such as these.

Wild Track

Filming's finished for the afternoon

but the soundman wants another minute.

He needs to tape for atmosphere.

So we sit on in the Sussex glasshouse –


the floor a mess of cables, wires,

DAT machines, reflector screens, and mikes –

and start picking up those under-sounds

we edit out of normal hearing:


first an expectant, surreptitious hiss,

like a stylus kissing glossy vinyl –

or a kettle's quiet sigh towards the boil –

then something hushing from the wainscot.


There's the sound of the town and the downland,

the lull of a faraway train. The dusk

is settling like dew, deep inside the head.

It's time to wrap but we're still here,


holding the shell of the earth to our ears,

listening for the death and birth of stars.



Well, hello there, husband number one!

How odd to see you here, suddenly

fallen out of that forgotten book

smiling in black and white.


Is the real you connected to this satellite smile?

Perhaps you don't realise – your imprint

beaming out this ancient signal;

a little bit of life's wiring gone astray?


I wait for the impact of that smile;

nothing is happening. Evidently we no

longer trade in split seconds of understanding?


Of course there is distance between us, but

is it now too vast to capture in soul-shaking moments

between lightning strike and thunderbolt?


And the nothing continues. Perhaps light years

are required these days for impact,

for that fundamental chaos to strike?


Or is it simply that we have both now reached

opposite ends of time, the east and west

of some slowly dissipating shrug of emotion?


I can only wait so long for nothing to happen

inspecting your signal from ten thousand years ago.

Still travelling somewhere out there;


but not in this direction.


The Jarkov Mammoth

In an ice cave in Siberia

scientists wielding hairdryers advance

millimeter by millimeter, on their prey.


This airlifted piece of permafrost holds

secrets, bones, teeth, hair

and tiny Pleistocene plants.


Tweezers pick the marble mammoth up,

piece by piece, and collect it

in resealable plastic bags.


In a lab in Japan its DNA,

painstakingly extracted,

is manipulated for cloning.


A prehistoric reincarnation,

created not begotten, born of elephant

Into a warming world.


The Catch

Three days away there is a wild beast called the sea,

ghosts wing above it singing ugly prayers,

in the detritus of its den we found shells,

some still alive and glutinous.


It has salty blood that goes on forever

and a voice that can get inside your dreams.

It sleeps when the sky sleeps – then we steal its silver,

cook it, and eat it, white-hot at the centre.


In anger it rises up into thunderclouds

we hide in caves, as you would from a god,

knowing him implacable and strong

and that you had done him wrong.




Id knew the fashioning of flint

the hammering of stone.

He reckons distance by a foot's stride,

the thumb's grasp on rope, its pull.


He watches the world unfold

in the sheen of the bison's flank;

the sun sweeping its skin,

the thrill of stars.


At night, in the dead man's cave,

they make folds of origami for his suit;

each corner matching a hinge of sky

where airy constellations creep.








Lunchtime at Sedgeford – Trenchermen

The archaeologists dig down

through layers

of lasagne,


stratifications of Mother's Pride,




Sift aggregates of trifle.

Then hose down plastic spoons,

and return them to the trenches,

to scoop away the Iron Age.




Autumn issue

Theme: Food
Judge: Peter Finch

"Food" is certainly a popular topic and there were loads of offbeat and tangential approaches. Recipes, lists of ingredients, food of love, sickness, fields, EU mountains, supermarket receipts, fast food, slow food, thick food, free food, food with fronds and fins, food covered with ink. My own Food (Seren Books) tried a few new angles and now the world's with me. Enjoy.


Sugar Witch

Not even an uninterrupted year of prayers

from the sweet ladies of the Guild of Azenor


will undo sugar's spell,

sugar's malediction,


her poison;

she wants to steal your eyes,


to fell you to the ground,

drown your blood in her sweetness


Sweets to the sweet is no longer true

since sugar declared war on you


Shove mad sugar in her cage,

seek the only safe sweetness


for you nowadays,

here, all the time, on my lips


Let my sugars suffice,

sample the antidote of my honey,


burn the witch



Catching Shad

A shoal of them, streamlined silver

on a fisherman's stall.

Caught last night, he says, flicking

a finger at scales still soft, iridescent.

He tips one into my bag.


At the sink, the mucilagenous

weight of it slithers through my hands,

fingers left grasping at a twisting tail,

till I trap it under the tap, set

the back of my knife to the

glinting sheen, uncover

mottled vulnerable skin.


And after I've slit open the bulge

of the belly, spilled the two sacs

she's carried to the spawning grounds,

after I've rinsed off the blood, hacked

through bone for twelve slices, packed

them in jars with a ring of shallot,

a parsley sprig and sealed them

for five hours' boiling; after I've

tightened the lids and placed

the cool jars on the larder shelf,

(bones melted to a grainy crunch,

flesh soft and succulent), then

what I can't wash away is the feel

of the thrusting slippery mass of her

escaping my grasp again and again

as she made her last dive.



Asylum Tea

The ambulance crew had gone back

into night and the man was still shouting,

somewhere on the ward. Black,

black tea on a desk and slow with sugar.

In my mouth were things I thought worth noting,

outside, night sky getting bigger

and lamps in a car park.


I would have left had it not been

for the tea, asylum tea they called it,

taking life on the bone

that night, and my lost words, fallen asleep

over a section paper. They spilled it

though, on an old tin tray, my cup

of asylum tea. One


drip near the section paper's edge,

a brown ring on some torn blotting paper,

a small space become large.

But then I never tasted tea like that;

it saw me through till morning, to sleep a

sleep squeezed from my dreams in new light

along the window ledge.


A slight disturbance in the night

and a taste of tea I would not recall,

a man's shouting when late.

These are the things I offer from that time

though, at best, my memory is fickle.

I drink coffee when not at home

now, and work in daylight.



Inulin, pork gelatine, modified maize starch.

Fructose. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, emulsifiers.

Mono and diglycerides of fatty acids.

Lactic acid esters of mono

and diglycerides of fatty acids

Dried glucose syrup, pectin.

Xanthan gum, aseculfame K,



Fruit (8%)


The Fighter


But you must eat.


They're standing round the bed,

staring with cheese-fat faces at her flatness

under the smooth bedspread.

Her gaze must not meet theirs

lest they contaminate

her pure self with their greasy soups,

their ropes of pasta, testicles

of calves, dead hens

and veg-stuff pulled out of the sluggy earth.

She will not be their goose

whose feet are nailed down on a board while they force in

the choking, constant masses of mashed corn.

She will fight on, defend her private mouth,

keep it inviolate.


Now they have gone.

She's very tired. She turns her head a bit,

breathes the plain cotton sheet.

Below lies the hell-kitchen, but its smells

do not reach this white room.

She is all spirit now, so beautiful.

One need not eat to feed.

If there's no cloud tonight, she will take in

an amplitude of empty, sweet moonlight.





The Communist Party's Xmas Lunch

There was food, obviously, lots of food,

including some things the delegates had never

seen in this context, including a stuffed & roasted

reindeer's head, a rack of bbq elk with carrots

& all the trimmings, wild turkey with tinsel,

a trio of passionate poets reciting heroic verse

backed by a glockenspiel, toy drums & a stylophone.

(All the proper instruments and their musicians

were on duty at the Socialist Youth Theatre's

Seasonal Review of Workers Achievements.)


There was also vodka; plain vodka, export vodka,

Polish vodka, Swedish vodka, vodka flavoured

with bison grass, lemon grass, and lime juice.

The Heroes of the Revolution sat in a stiff line

of medals & braid like so many monoliths,

firing down vodka and munching piroghi.

Soon they were reminiscing about ice skating

by moonlight, bonfires on the Neva ice,

and structured sex with teachers, farm workers

& coal miners during vacations at Black Sea spas.


The polymaths amongst them recalled terms

of endearment in sixteen minority languages,

which they started to call out when someone

noticed the General Secretary's wife standing up

to give her Report on the outstanding progress

of the Collective Farms she was responsible for.

A former KGB agent told his astonished comrades

that the Queen's Speech lasted 3 minutes.

After 45 minutes, they started collecting empty

vodka bottles to make Molotov cocktails.