Members' Poems 2002

Winter issue

Theme: Fire
Judge: Carole Satyamurti
This was a sparky set of entries with some predictable recurrent themes which were sometimes treated in original ways. There were, inevitably, several September 11 poems, a sizeable copse of autumn trees and a heartening amount of lust.



Burning Bush

A curious choice

for the all-powerful Lord of Hosts

to speak through

a burning bush;

when he could have gone for

rolling thunder, say,

or the blanketing silence of snowfall.


Maybe it was a grudge he had been harbouring

since Creation

against a peculiarly ugly shrub,

designed just before tea-time on the sixth day

when his concentration wavered.

The Bible is not specific on horticultural particulars.


The flames lick up, hot on the face,

and the bush is not consumed.


Perhaps he liked to hear his voice

made gravelly by smoke

like a jazz singer?


Or was he trying to warn Moses

that men who say

they've heard the voice of God

are playing with fire?







The Borrowed House

Back at home the blue stain from the candlewax

has washed clean out of the tablecloth,

the flowers you picked for the table

are topping off the compost,

(will you ever need that lesson again

in how to eat spaghetti?)

the log you upended to smoulder

for charcoal is still lying in the grate.


Here, three counties from my home,

in this borrowed house, the iris bloom

which should have shown before you left.

Slowly they unfurl, turning from a May Day fire,

leaning from the vase at half their usual height.

They're old as well as new.

Without an upright stance

their heads stoop towards the walls.

I fear the lower buds may never flower.


It took coming here to realize the last few weeks -

the drive through rape fields, the wide horizons,

the waking in a place you have not been.

No longer do I crave your daily voice,

my memory loosens to bring me evidence -

the origin of a tie pin,

welcome snores at the beginning of the night,

a lark you believed to be there,

a brother dying in your arms,

the construction of crockery on the drainer

when you did the washing up,

"I don't want to be a guest right from the start".


This, I shall paint into the present, and this -

a picture of you naked, miming.

The scene - a prison room, the officers are sitting down.

You act the part of a detainee, you're told to

bend your knees, stretch your arms,

as if sitting astride a motorbike.

You must make your body shudder with the rumble of the engine.

As you play out for me this torture from inside Insein jail

flames from the hearth mark you out in gold.

"We had to stay like this for hours".




A Carnival of Fire




Because you know these things,

you tell me about the candle flame between us:


how alchemists thought fire was a substance

a bit like ectoplasm, ready to burst out

of whatever combustible - coal, wood, wax -

the heat was unlocking.


Because you know these things,

you take me into the drama of fire


in which oxygen and heat, like rescuers,

smash the bonds chaining molecules together,

giving them a new, energetic lease of life

in an exuberance of heat and light.


Because you know these things,

you make it sound like a carnival


and I can see them dancing, free-spirited,

in their fiery, extravagant costumes,

in unrelenting heat;

and because you know these things


you tell me one of the products of fire is water,

an oddly satisfying notion;

and how particles of soot blaze yellow;


how as long as there's fuel to feed on,

fire will keep on going, setting light to itself,

a process, not a substance;


and because you know these things,

you talk about the Firekeeper,


whose life would have been to guard the flame

and keep the carnival moving,

and how you'd like that job;


and because I know these things,

I know you're not talking about fire.







People bring flowers from Safeway.

I read the bar-codes for something to do

but mostly I watch my friends cry

and wipe their noses on the backs of their hands.


Shot into the ether, bowled over and up

as the clocks slipped back,

I'm unrehearsed for this shift: all this

pollen and cellophane crackle

here among the lilies and freesias.

I'm trying hard to catch an eye or bend an ear


but my friends just stare at the tarmac,

the burnt grass and the mud. They remember head

banging, Tzant and Tampera,

but can only imagine

after that: last Saturday's dazzle;

my exploding Astra turned furnace;

the hiss of burning flesh.


All this pollen makes them sneeze.

It goes through me.

I do my ghost dance. I'm learning fast.

I blow up their nostrils

and down the backs of their necks.






Fires: An Alternative Verdict


He lifted the ice-lid, inches thick,

and leant it against the shed like a lost hub-cap.

Goldfish flickered alive, then he went inside.


Days later, they found him frozen: Dodgy fire.

When I visited, after his wife died of cancer,

he sat smoking a fag till it burnt his fingers;


screwed it out on the hearth's red-tiled frame,

then slowly, shakily lowered the flame

as though adjusting his own desire.







Nemzeti Láng*




Imre Nagy stands cold in bronze

on his bridge in Budapest. He

remembers '56.

Red flowers

with bent necks float beneath his feet.

When his communist heart faltered

he turned Hungarian; his neck

did more than bend. His eyes are fixed

forever on a building once pocked

by angry shells. Now its walls are staked

with metal spheres to mark the hits, and

remember '56.

Over the road,

outside a spiky Parliament gothic

as Westminster, squats a black candle,

huge, in polished marble.

Its top curves like melted wax

round its all night and day flame.


A single guard's

on duty, chilled and young. His rifle points

to the silent sky. It's last night he



* National fire




Spring issue

Judge: Roddy Lumsden
Theme: Islands
The number of entries for Members' Poems continues to increase. The island theme brought many responses to Donne's famous line, and the smell of midge cream and tea in flasks came to mind as so many seemed to have braved the Scottish north west.







Boat burials, chambered cairns, mounds:

the O.S. map was littered with them.

A broch. We stood inside fortified rooms,

the rump of a tower by the sea.


Pottery pieces had been found,

stone and bone spindle whorls. Remnants

of crucibles and moulds for bronze.

Jewellery. A fine ladle.


What haunted though, was not the ancient

stone alcoves and stairway, but a croft:

south-facing with crouched outbuildings

roofed with huge slabs from the shore,


nettles massed in its walled yard,

the course of a burn round behind,

flagged by yellow irises, sedge.

Extraordinarily, this disappeared


in a hundred runnels maybe,

under the bare flagstone floor

of a room with chairs, a table, Rayburn.

One wall was already cave-green.


But the view through the last window

was the ghost: tea-towel, rubber gloves,

hung on a pull-out rail to dry,

the washing-up bowl upturned.




Stop here on this cliff edge

and consider the woman hanging out

washing on the lighthouse island.

In four years of marriage,

they say she's never left the light

or raised a glass to those on kinder ground.


The sea twisting its hair

shouts to her from sparking rocks but none turns

her head, not even the boatman

who has stood on the stair

and watched a surf break in patterns

round the silence in her wind scraped garden.


She knows the eyes that watch

and could soon acknowledge a squall or steel

stars. But the lighthouse keeper's mind

is elsewhere, beyond reach

of food on the kitchen table

or the things she plants that die in the ground.


So she pegs the washing

and he, stone lipped, his chilly obsession

till dusk paints shapes that tug the line

and finds her, still gazing

at the light, more a suggestion

than a statement, sensing perhaps, late rain.





Shakespeare, the Bible and one other book




The music from Listen with mother, and

an Al Read monologue. Heartbreak hotel

of course and next, the trio from Cosi

fan tutte where they wave the boat goodbye.

Yes I could fish, light fires, build a shelter.

The Stones Not fade away (five). Stand by me,

John Lennon's version and that Schubert thing

Inspector Morse plays in his room alone.


Of course I'll miss my friends and family.

Last disc, Miles Davis's Time after time.

I'd keep that if the others washed away.

Only one other book, Sue? Can't I take

Goethe and Pooter? And my luxury?

Paper, an inexhaustible supply.






The hotel was open and I was the only guest.

Robert Louis Stevenson stayed here once.

Dinner in the library. I found a book

by Teilhard de Chardin and read by firelight.


In bed I listened to the motion of islands,

boats creaking at anchor on the ocean's swell –

wind forcing the waves to give up their coloured stones

washed away from submarine marble.


I watched the shadows, black-robed figures

filing inexorably against walls of white

down the night stair to the choir to chant

near where the bones of Scottish kings are laid






For Matthew


It's here, on paper: left to yourself,

you drew your picture, wrote your name!

The usual giant "M", its peaks and troughs:

your mark. But then, the unlooked for miracle:


unsteady pencil letters struggle

and splash across the paper sea;

sight an island of orange (your body),

veer north, and manage a last leap


across a red peninsula (your head),

to end with a tantalising unfinished "w",

missing just one upstroke.

Perhaps it sank beneath a wave, exhausted.


It's the hole-punched cover of your first book:

a shaky record of your mardi gras,

the pictures hard and firm in your mind,

but slipping in your hand:


the painted masks; the big blue bird;

the car with music blaring from its open back;

the dance along the streets, and people

waving at you and cheering from far windows.





Summer issue

Theme: The Unknown
Judge: Roddy Lumsden
I could easily have picked twenty fine pieces from the 'Unknown Poems' pile – as ever I liked those which approached the theme sideways.


Montmartre, July 2001


After the climb I'm martyred enough to buy bottled water

from a mute boy in white, whose eyes gutter


like dark candles as I pay. In the Rue Poulet

all the Côte D'Ivoire-in-diaspora's out today


hawking prawns, sandals, tea towels, plantains, hair.

Words I memorized in school shake the bars of the air,


brazen birds of sound, more infinitely foreign

than any archetypal, textbook Sylvie et Jeanne


wondering when the train will arrive, sentenced to travel

forever through mal à la tête and endless drivel


about food, weather, le week-end, faire du sport,

their frequent discussions of Saint-Lazare ou Gare du Nord


bereft of useful counsel like: don't sit

in the taxi's front seat if you can help it.


Jeanne et Sylvie, mes amies, are you even now

descending wide-eyed from the train? Do you


still turn each corner as if you'd never turned

any corner before? Is there a France to understand?


Do I alone not understand the world in general?

Is it rational that I'm frightened of the girl


attending the public toilets? I'm not one

of you, her naked fingernails intone


as she pushes back my change. You are not

one of me. What kind of day-after-day must it


be, presiding over the shining toilets

and the faint perfume of shit which permeates


the orange disinfectant, as truth peers

through the keyhole of a lie? Can we say that truth is


the world itself, for which there's no one word?

Here, Saint Denis knelt beneath the sword,


rose, took up his head, and walked. A miracle:

saints' blood christening an amnesiac hill


where still some fin-du-siècle whore-ghost leans from her window

nightly to call the monster-man, the twisted shadow,


misshapen stain on the cracked pavement, who hangs like a gymnast

between his sticks, who – knowing that what will last


is not the lovemaking but the loneliness –

raises one crutch, meaning yes.





Hostage Situation

He fell in love with a photo booth – just down

from the MacDonalds he used to go to with his daughter

every other Sunday, before his ex moved to Aberdeen.


It started with presents left behind the curtain:

a box of Milk Tray, a dozen roses, a porcelain Beefeater

purchased from a boutique in South Ken.


There's a cop with a megaphone, crime tape

flips in the breeze. "We'll get you the Cheese Burger

with rings, Simon; we need to know what flavour milkshake."





Mine is the skill to straddle a ragwort stalk,

rise against the moon, stir the stars and skim

the chimneys prodding the sky at the end

of the land, or shift my shape to owl or hare

and arc across the moor.


Mine is the craft bought with the midnight touch,

nine-times, of the logan stone, and in church

with wine, the wafer saved to feed a toad,

and three times said 'Our father', end to start,

to woo the outside gods.


Mine are the charms to summon sudden storms

when rich ships ride the tide, shine lights

to warn of thrashing seas, bounce balls of fire

up cams or down the shafts and tunnels

lined with copper veins.


Mine is the gift to sail in a bladebone boat,

call down the wind or sell it to sailors: knots

on a thread to be unstrung, one for a breath,

two for a gale behind, three to blow

the vessel safely home.


Yours is the power to steal my strength

with an onion stuck with pins to pain my limbs,

a waxen manikin thrown into the flames,

a silver bullet, a shovelful of fire . . .

if you should dare.






My Life Elsewhere

Photos composed of layers of shrubs,

corners of parks where birds hid in unmarked aviaries,

tranches of woods so dark you'd not make out what flew.


Valerie, my mother'd say, photograph your schoolfriends,

grandmother, the dogs.


I went my own way, recording nothing much.


If we'd stretched those pictures beyond their hazy limits,

she might have found the shapes, slightly off-camera,

that shared my absent life.







like awkward elbows,

a tipped jug, water,

a moment

of fixed resin.

Or suds slick fingers,

falling Spode

settles on tiles like a blue feather.

Those same fingers, an old craze

of Bakelite shocks a breaker

open, when all we have are fuses

crossed by nails.

But mainly the surge

of sharp crystal

when your kisses glaze

my mouth like perfect icing.















Autumn issue

Theme: Creatures
Judge: Richard Price
This issue's topic was 'Creatures'. Many of the entrants took this literally, and I have to admit to a certain tiredness as I read through many of the poems. They didn't move much beyond an observer watching an animal and thinking thoughts about it. Poems don't have to be like that, and even very great poets may not have minds good enough to say something bright about an object they have cast in the role of meditative focus. Good poems are not always good poems because the poets are articulating good thoughts. But I did like these (and I even broke my own rules for some!).








People keep trying to make lions their creatures

My pride holds forty but they'll break away

I watch them through the thicket of our culture

I track them day by day


This lion licks its cubs into love's shape

This lavish tongue is cleaning up after prey

This lion yawns, watching hyenas brisk about small fry

Asia gives warning in this amber eye

This lion's cave resonates hell's mediaeval maw

This lion set prophets and saints on their highway

This lion is learning tricks from George Bernard Shaw

This strong lion gives out syrup in glossy tins galore

The bees buzz over the leakage from this lion's sweetly

festering store

This lion shrugs off the Brands bonanza, from snacks to sports, flexing its claw

This lion is Biblical; this lion is stuffed with straw

This lion haunts Venice, the British Museum and fountain spray

This lion is dazzling fans in Egypt with a golden ray

This lion plumbs the circus of display

This lion's roar electrifies the tent and children cry

"We're glad this lion can't get out to play"

"This lion's bite is very likely worse than nurses' pay"

This lion paces after the Night Traveller and may –

This lion peers at a man on his back in striped array

The lion whispers, "Don't talk to me about tigers; have some savoir-faire

"Get up and be a man," it breathes in his ear

But he'd rather be lionised, with, "Bravo! Hip-hooray!"

My Last Lion a Hunter and Trainer's ghosted Autobiography

Richard Coeur de Lyon, apparently, was half the man his

title would imply

Two faceless lions magnify the gate of Mycenae

Two lions guide and guard the way to Places Great and High

A lion locked in rock lent Scottish Kings sway

A lion's pelt embraces the shoulders of chieftains' ceremony

This lion is moving in its majesty

The Lion King is a moving kids' movie

"Come live with me and be my lion" some say


Each creature as I play

At taming, making mine, shadows away,

Stoops to the hidden pool:

That elsewhere, unknown

All-creating day







The last time that I saw her

(Over a year, it's been),

She was the loveliest creature

That I had ever seen.


But now we're re-united

It really is quite strange

She's nice, but nothing special

Funny how people change.









have infiltrated my garden:

I see their ears, squeezed petals of tiny roses,

listening for the footfall of cat;

their quivering bodies, foxgloves

between tentative fingers;

their eyes, the glistening beads

of blackberries;

their pattering feet leaving clear pearls

on the laurel.


Mice have infiltrated my garden:

their miniature silences held between breath

of breeze and birdsong.





Tea with Celeste 

She is enough to fill

a Beatrix Potter sketch book,


this immaculate rat with rosé eyes;

handful of fur and bones,


clean as a white napkin.

She could out-pinky anyone in a tearoom


as she sits on her haunches,

delicately eating half a grape,


holding it like a prize trophy

in her Henry Moore hands.





Asleep In The Bath all Night

I woke, cold as a fish

and covered in goose-bumps.

My calcified lips and mouth

full of upturned needles left me speechless.


Above my nose, my wet black eyes

swivelled wildly in their sockets.

My arms retracted and my fingers,

now delicately webbed, trembled at my sides.


A ridge of spines arched from the small of my

back to the base of my neck; my legs contracted

and my feet fanned as, with my newly acquired

cold blooded and slippery resolution,


I shrank to the size of a man's thumb.

Become at last a stickleback, I dived

through the surface scum

of lime and guava bubblebath


to make this nest of hairpins

in which I hide from the cat.





Meeting the Creatures

Saw them at Wembley just the once.

Got two tickets because I liked the songs,

liked her more. As Gothic as at the beginning,

she kept charcoal round the whites of her eyes,

caked her lips in clay from eighty-three,

wore the slave collar that set her free.

A raven mini-dress. Pitch hair to pale skin.

He should have been irrelevant at the drum,

but after two hits I wanted to be him,

and not just because he got to sleep with her,

who'd become irrelevant when they let us hear

the new stuff, but just for the sheer

electricity he was banging at that kit.

I needed to be a part of it,

needed to smash the tom-toms into next week,

have my earring fly around, persistent wasp,

the perfect crash always just inside my grasp,

the snare roll a kind of lust.

So I had to tell Jayne it wasn't Siouxsie

who had me going. It was Budgie.

I thought she'd be pleased, take it easy,

but the ride we were on seemed to finish

that night, leading to times when we'd just punish

each other, then to nothing. There were other fish.

So yeah, I saw the Creatures, and they made

the things that go on between my dates

that little bit different. Not, you know, like Slade.