A rhyme for all time

A rhyme for all time

Iblis, full of hubris.
Mary, full of grace.
Sodom, full of sodomy,
Was such a sinful place.

Judas, full of treachery.
Thomas, full of doubt.
Samuel Johnson, lived with Tourette’s,
Scrofula and gout.

Pandu, full of pallor.
Pingu, full of pike.
Buddha, full of compassion.
Tiggy-Winkle, full of spike.

Libraries, full of artful lies.
Graveyards, full of truth.
Forests, full of sageless age.
Cities, full of youth.

Atlas, full of burden.
Anansi, full of tricks.
Jim Corr, full of theories,
Thick as Egyptian bricks.

History, full of wonder.
Victoria, full of grief;
Phone boxes painted glossy black,
Beggars still belief.

Empire, full of spices.
Dungeon, full of mould.
Mazes, full of Minotaurs.
Mountains, full of gold.

Schoolhouse, full-of-rule-house:
Testing testaments.
Rockeries, full of mockeries
Of your faith’s investments.

Culture, full of landfill.
Landfill, full of it.
Mass graves, full of plastic.
Media, full of shit.

Psychopaths and saints are all
Cavorting, hand-in-glove.
All of it’s amazing; it is,
I am, full of love.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]




Only my second dentist’s appointment
This decade. Last time I could tell she was
In a hurry; I’d barely swallowed twice
The taste of rubber gloves on gums, and tuned
In to mesmeric bingo-caller code
Punctuated with sharp metallic clicks.
This guy was Greek, I think. Meticulous,
Worse luck. Two daughters and a wife in tow
This time; it must have been a good few years.

The day ran away down the A40:
Scouting out schools; a parent-and-toddler
Singing group; a doctor’s appointment too –
Could be asthma but it’s too soon to tell.
Wet winter. Does it run in the family?
Back to M&S car park for 3G.
The storms have hit hard: an exchange is down
And no one knows how to fix the phone-line.
Home through rain. 100 Broken Windows

And there they are: 3.3 kilos of
A4, rubber-banded, wrapped in plastic
Twice, addressed to me, in plain sight, balanced
On the mailbox. Money Saving Expert
Said to stipulate 40 days or less
And so it came to be. Since I threw out
My cassettes and diaries, this is my
Completest history: 12 years’ worth of
Bank statements, tracing my days from student

To graduate; from émigré to me;
Through train stations, chain pubs and record shops
Via hardship funds and overdraft fees.
It’s all here. Inside winds have abated
And our Rayburn’s ready to be relit.
It’s a solid-fuel-to-oil conversion,
Undoubtedly older than me and V;
The technician who came to service it
Last summer said its electric pump is

Illegal; if we have a power-cut
And happen to be out it will explode.
Warm-enough chips and buildings insurance
Are comfort enough for now. And that stack
Of bank statements rests on the work surface
Like a bible, or Joyce’s Ulysses.
Maybe the room will kindle in the night –
Yes, and all the lights across the globe will
Go out, and decades of debt will be wiped.

This epic volume of biography
Will be lost to sirens, static and smoke;
Rendered meaningless by a stroke of fate.
And maybe I’ll emerge a wiser man,
Less a coat; or else just forget the date
Of my next dental appointment. Three fillings.
I have always had perfect teeth. At least
They’ll be able to identify me,
Should the need arise, for annuity.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]



History, herstory;
Which of these would you be first to heed?
And which story would you prefer to read?
If I’m thirsty and cold, will you furnish me
With a purse with which to feed me furs and tea?
If I’m first to leave, will you hire a hearse for me?
And a furnace to fire and burnish me?
If it’s a mystery that murders me,
Will you put my name to a bursary,
So that that name –
Which I’ve taken pains to explain –
With which I’ve lost as much as I’ve gained
Might echo like the ripples on the surface of a lake
From the touch of a single drop of rain?

Might remain?

I search desperately –
I’m obsessed, you see –
For a medium through which to make the best of me.
No mean or median or mode for me
Because I know that’s not what was meant for me;
I was sent to be something of density.
Hard-hearted people use the word “destiny”;
But I’m talking of a sense in my intestines, see:
Not sense and sensibility,
But the worth that this earth
Might make from the dearth
Of the matter it hasn’t yet rent from me.

These concepts, I know, are only lent to me;
Neither my story nor your story
Will suffice to entice
Any more glory
From a path
That is math;
That is poor, hoary,
Hurried and worried and wild;
That’s the sighs of a sage and the tears of a child.

We’re just stains:
Breath on the wind
And piss in the drains;
Electrical impulses
Pulsing through brains:
Fragmented memories
In shades of grey –
Ash in the ocean,
Bones in the clay,

Just stains:
Blood on the flagstaves,
Rust on the chains;
The tide takes the sand,
The moon waxes and wanes:
Silhouettes of fleshy shapes
On fanciful thrones –
Recipes for worm food
Chiselled in stones.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Advertising space

Advertising space

I: Collectable biscuit tins

They make it our business.
They’ve made it our business.
They’re making it our business
All the time.
They’ll make it our business
Till the past dies
In a crime.

A family row boiled down
Isn’t much to shout about.
But lists of names
Of snuffed-out flames
In every village and every town,
Declaim – in chiselled chains
Trapping rivulets of rain,
Or engravings on brass plaques
That catch each flash of light –
The height of the stakes for us all
And the right of the tallest to fall.

Will “Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red”
Help us guess the price of a pint of milk
Or the weight of a bloody loaf of bread?

Will a shot at the cenotaph
Help one man convince the pessimist few
He’s much more than just a spike on a graph?

Will turning death into flowers
And legalized mass murder into art
Help us historicize a tragedy
Or tragedize a history?
Or at least learn our lines,
Anticipate our cues
And play our part?

Polish your rifle, the wood is green.
The tanks are waiting; where have you been?

Stille nacht, heilige nacht.
I’m afraid of the present,
I’m afraid of the past.

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
I’m afraid of the present,
I’m afraid of the past.

A glossy fan of peasant blood
From a hard heart of fossil-fuel buckshot.
What’s the upshot?

888,246 corpses
Would be tough to source.

Wax your moustaches, the frost is keen.
Death in June for Lady Mondegreen.

Stille nacht, heilige nacht.
Betrayed by the future,
Betrayed by the past.

Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Betrayed by the future,
Betrayed by the past.

Every fallen conscript
Like Jesus
Like Jesus

To be worshipped without question
Like Jesus
Like Jesus

Schlaf in himmlischer ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer ruh!
II: In the conference rooms

The agonized clinks
Of three glasses repeating
Rough deltoid contact.

Vodka or voda;
And from the undammed Volga,
Salty grey treasure.

A king not let in
To the house of his cousin,
Left out in the snow.

Our deaths embroidered
On tabby-woven linen
By pliant machines.

A willow baton
Gesticulating toward
Attentive shovels.

A deck reshuffled:
Pert, primed, for another crack
At the same old game.

Thank God there are those
Willing to watch and unwatch
Such common portents.
III: Love in the time of Spanish Flu

They’re chuffing us off to the fair, the fair.
I doubt what delights we’ll see there, see there.

I swear I’ve the cold to end colds, end colds.
The doubt trapped in my heart fair moulds, fair moulds.

There’s space for the adverts to fly, to fly.
There’s cause for the poets to die. To dye

Your white poppy all you need
Is some copper and some eggshell
And some existential dread,
Folded through a preparation
Of some human flesh made greed,
Seasoned with some ink and intel:
Soon you’ll see the cells turn red;
The true hue of reparation.

They’re curing the dumb and the lame, the lame.
They’re doing it all in our name, our name.

I curse the day I chose this path, this path.
I’d sooner have stewed in my bath, my bath.

There’s media channels for sale, for sale.
There’s genuine tyrants to bail. To bale

All this fodder you’ll need men,
Or, at the very least, machines –
Of loving grace, if willing;
Or else facilitating things:
Digits counting up to ten,
And not a thing to come between
Them and the righteous killing
Of which our each ancestor sings.
IV: Advertising space

When the wind has blown its owing
Over wounds too deep and foul for sewing,
What flowers then through battlefields
Will still be growing strong?

Fingers frozen clasped closed praying
Numb chewed tongue doesn’t know what it’s saying
To the God you share with a foe
Who is playing along.

There’s no dignity in dying
For a half-mast flag that will keep flying
Regardless of the song;
Even if the words are wrong.

Saint Peter posted at the gates
As Wilfred Owen meets his fate;
He has that look upon his face:
Advertising space.

No one learned from those mistakes;
We ploughed our profits back with haste.
And all that’s left, lest we forget,
Is advertising budget.

Pluck your eyes from their sore sockets;
Chop your hands off and zip up your pockets
With the stumps. Stuff your ears with straw;
You won’t hear the rockets roar.

They poisoned me with mustard gas;
A sweet and honourable way to pass:
A blistered throat and bloody lungs
For cysts to mass among.

And I was grateful to the state
For moving me to truly contemplate
What it really means to serve;
What we servile deserve.

Saint Peter gives his keys a shake,
Says “I don’t like being made to wait.
Siegfried Sassoon: leaving so late?”
Advertising space.

No one learns from past mistakes;
We fill our prophets full of nails.
And all that’s for the fallen
Is advertising sales.

You’ve seen my daughters?
Man, they’re cute.
If they want to work in advertising too,
Lord, I don’t know what I’ll do.
V: Collectable biscuit tins (reprise)

They make it our business.
They’ve made it our business.
They’re making it our business
All the time.
They’ll make it our business
Till the past dies
In a crime.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

The old house

The old house

The old house we left is still here,
Though it’s grown even greener.
I daren’t get too near
Lest its look gets any meaner.

I’ve no right now to be this close,
Peering over the high wall
Like a perv. But my nose,
When I’m on tip-toes, is that tall

So how could I hope to resist?
I don’t want to see their kids
Play where I did: their wrists
Skimming the same nettles mine did.

Do they dig up my broken toys?
I wonder. Wander away
With no answer. The noise
Of their woes, and their joys, delays

Me a while – that they coincide.
Brothers can be quite cruel things
To grow up with. Inside
Now, I wonder whose judgement brings

Their justice? I mean, his or hers?
“Ask your mum” or “Ask your dad.”
Ten years back we conversed:
These exact arguments were had

Between the same four limestone walls,
Stone sourced near. If they could talk,
They’d shout: “Heard it before!”
Crunching downhill, I hear my walk

Punctuate the droning of bees.
Fat ducks’ quacks bully bread from
Busfuls of OAPs.
To Flagstaff quarry: I succumb

To the soft thrumming of summer
And slumber where they quarried
My home. Here, high on the
Hill, over it all, I’m sorry

For a moment we ever left –
Waking warm, blinking bubbles,
Purse cursed. But here’s no theft.
And lying still will leave troubles.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Escape to the country

Escape to the country

Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields,
Just as a beef-bull for the butcher bleeds,
Now let us build a home among these fields.

Homo sapiens’ destiny was sealed
By gatherers in sowing those first seeds.
Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields,

Landscars, lost memorials, are revealed.
As plants that plant themselves are wily weeds,
Now let us build a home among these fields.

We shall protect our plot with these sure shields
We render as unwritten rights and deeds:
Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields;

Just as a scab’s a healing wound congealed;
Just as the dead haunt asphodelus meads;
Now let us build a home among these fields

Until the final chapel bells have pealed,
Until the old red giant wakes and feeds.
Just as a sheaf’s wheat to the sickle yields,
Now let us build a home among these fields.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]



Each day dawns, a drawn breath held till dusk.
The musk of each is unique;
A cocktail of intentions and mistakes,
With a tear shed for each brick that cracks,
And apologies for each promise that breaks.

We came here for different reasons,
I suppose; only neither of us remembers
All those yester-Decembers ago
What motivated us;
Who we were: what we wore
Underneath those clothes.
Our photographs are evidence
Only of smiles and situations.

You couldn’t make them up.
There are no reciprocations
In the chewing-gum train stations
Where the late and the latents
Expend fate and patience
In becoming the justification
For all of this urgent art.

False start, true friend;
I will hold your hand
Till the sour end.
Let’s not be anxious, or unctuous,
Obnoxious or rambunctious;
But rather let’s welcome among us
The vegetable, meat and fungus
Of a thousand surviving ideas.

Come the hour, however it may,
When nature’s tentacles split stone
And concrete crumbles –
When all of this dust-deaf marshland
Reverts to verdant jungle –
Will we embrace the return of the trees?
Or cower under our desks,
And rock back and forth, humming mildly,
Hugging our knees?

Our fears are only as logical
As the wind is visible.
Our hats are only as fashionable
As our desires are risible.

They coddle us with possibilities.
Foundations in yesterday’s clay,
They’ve fossils on their soles.
With heads in the clouds,
They see four futures at once –
Each advancing apace
From north, south, east, west;
Wearing a gaunt game face.

Every decision is made here now.
Every action external to this
Is akin to the breaking of wind
By a slaughterhouse cow.
We are blessed to be in the presence
Of a greatness we couldn’t have planned;
A greatness formed by no godly hand
In these nerve centres;
These everted brains;
These magnetic meathooks;
These gold-plated drains;
These castles of plastic;
These muscles of law;
These tumours of landscape;
These rumours of war.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Tragedy branding

Tragedy branding

“Have you ever tried needles?” he asked,
Mancunian tongue, Gog saliva.
Thin and looking sorry for himself.
“Amazing,” he said, out of focus.
On his first morning in the city
He had a girl 12 years his junior
Navigating the stolen street signs
And temporary fencing in our
Kitchen to make him filter coffee,
And a job interview to go to.
She ironed his purple shirt for him.
I didn’t know we had an iron.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he enthused
Before she was even out the door.
I shrugged. Heading out into the heat
Without deodorizing, no more
To watch old men in suits half as old
Reminisce on Chinese business trips
Or bankers barely older than me
Explain why communism failed,
I begrudged him his optimism.
I was leaving the city that week
Without all the answers I’d sought,
The brown corduroys I’d only just bought,
Or much beyond yes, no, please and beer
In a language I’d never now learn.
Had I tried needles? Need he have asked?
Nevertheless, by then friends were scarce.
So the day before my departure
We sat and drank in an Irish bar
In the Old Town to kill the morning,
Waiting for our mutual man, Mark;

Eyes fixed on the TV’s rolling news:
Bombs on trains and buses. In London.
This was before phones had internet –
Besides which, I was between phones then;
Between jobs, between meals, between homes…
No way of contacting my brother.
Would he still be alive tomorrow?
“What’ll they call this, d’you think?” he asked.
I recalled that last summer at home,
Before the degree and the divorce,
A Barbara Allen adaptation
On Radio 4 being cut across
By talk of World Trade Centres and planes
That would soon be dubbed Nine Eleven.
The War on Terror was underway
By then; everywhere I spoke, schoolkids
Would shout “George Bush!” and give a thumbs-down.
We never brainstormed a likely brand.
I left for a block of Danish cheese,
Which would be my only souvenir;
The stink of which would permeate through
My dearest possessions for a year.
He came to Prague to kick a habit,
As I had found out so many did.
I wonder what the place made of him –
And what he made of it. But that night
Mark and I kicked a Gambrinus can
All the way from Hlavní Nádraží
Through hot drunken streets of cheering Czechs
To our door and upstairs to our flat.
If I’m really honest with myself,
I’ve wondered more what became of that.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]

Begging letters

Begging letters

Dear Nicholas,

How are you?

It’s a long time since I wrote.
You see, I’ve wanted for nothing
Since you last received my note.
I’d like to think I’ve been good in the interim,
Although, it’s harder to be sensitive
When insensible of an incentive.
And, while I know that if I find myself drowning
I might want to learn how to swim,
When I know I’m already on land I could never
Persuade myself to row.
So, I have not murdered, or lied,
Or coveted anyone else’s wives,
Or taken any more than I was willing to give,
Or knowingly suffered one whom I suspected
Of being a witch to live,

But I have asked questions,
And I haven’t always liked the replies.
You wouldn’t like them either, Nicholas;
You wouldn’t believe your eyes
If I showed you, for instance,
That your red coat used to be green
Before some puckish person’s penmanship
On the cover of a magazine
Delivered you to Atlanta
To a soft-drinks manufacturer,
Forevermore to be seen
On the side of a lorry, with a bottle in hand,
And a somehow-unhealthy sheen.

Or if I showed you of yestercentury,
When your job was done by another:
A sky god like he who you now represent
But married to our old earth mother;
Did you crawl from the ashes of the Yule Goat,
Or sail here in a steamer from Spain?
Did you fall from the heavens in the wildest hunt
Or walk over the Great European Plain?

And are you still the patron of prostitutes?
So many questions, forgive me, dear Nick;
It’s just that I hear all these conflicting messages
And wonder at the length of your wick.

Would you believe me if I told you
That the whole concept of sainthood began
Only to serve the multifaceted needs
Of polytheistic man?
What would Jesus make of it all, do you think?
Do you mind that I ask you that?
How would he feel, do you suppose,
That the empire he fought to the death against
Became the empire he begat,
Which took his death
And fetishized it
In execution-chic giftshop tat?

Zion’s still waiting,
Sore bear at the bee hive,
For something holy to arrive,
For something holy to arrive
For the first time.

Oh, Nicholas, I never believed in you.
At least not in the sense that you needed me to.
Perhaps you’d have seemed more plausible
If we’d imported Krampus too
And been threatened with more than empty stockings
If we didn’t do what we were told –
Let blood and bones and entrails replace
Our frankincense, myrrh and gold –
But the Disneyfication of our mythology extends
To the bible and beyond, including folk tales and legends;
It’s a Wonderful Life followed on from A Christmas Carol,
And the suicide rate rockets annually
As you roll out the barrel.

Oh, we’re letting the Africans know
That we’re dreaming of seasonal snow;
That we’re missing sales targets
At faux farmers’ markets;
And now, it’s beginning to show.

With tear-glazed eyes we expect
Something holy, something holy;
We, our lives the size of insects,
Inspect every text that survives
For words long, long ago prophesized
And await, like the spiders the flies,
That something holy, which must arrive;
Something holy must arrive,
Soon, sometime.

Dear Nicholas,

They say it all came from Hydrogen
And I’m stuck for a contrasting explanation.
I feel sick as they insist that nothing holy can exist;
Well, how can that be true if I am writing to you?
I’m told you’re not real and asked if I feel okay.
And I did, until I lost the brief belief I entertained as a kid
That the gist if not the grist of every Christmas list
Had a hope of being met by you and the hired help you enlist;
Weren’t you some kind of superman like Moses or Mohammed
Who could see the potential in all of us:
The collateral in the damage?

If there’s no hell for Christopher Hitchens,
Will your elves carve a coffin he’ll fit in?
If there’s no heaven for Mother Teresa,
Must I dig up her bones now to meet her?

You seemed a reasonable compromise,
That promised a measure of clarity;
That wove a satisfactory mystery
Between the history of barbarity
And the barbarity of history.

But to me you just weren’t compatible;
Where were you at the nativity?
You’re a marketing power tool that got out of hand,
Something serious come of levity;
An accidental brand.

Like Saint Valentine before,
You have a lot to answer for.
You’re an icon of berries and stuffing,
To the joy of getting something for nothing,
And the hope perhaps that if we play our roles
In a pantomime riddled with plot-holes
We’ll be rewarded as we strive
And something holy will arrive
Something holy will arrive
In the half-time;
To legitimize our lives
That something holy will arrive
For the first time.

This is my plea, then, Nicholas;
At this cue, which I now give to you,
Please would you give me a clue;

What should I tell my daughter, dear Nicholas?
What should I tell her about you?
We don’t keep a working chimney, you know,
And we never saw reindeer that flew.

What should I tell my daughter, dear Nicholas?
What should I tell her if she asks?
Should I let a story get in the way of the truth,
Though it’s uglier than that which it masks?

What should I tell little Sybil, dear Nicholas?
What should I tell her about you?
What if she enquires as to your ethnicity?
Are you German, Turk, American, Saami or Jew?

Shall I tell her on Christmas eve, dear Nicholas,
As we put out your milk and mince pies,
To keep an eye on the sky –
Half-blind with lightyears of lies –
And to wait for something holy to arrive?

Shall I tell her come yuletide you’ll ride overhead,
Like Odin before, and leave coins in the shoes or the socks
That she’ll place at the end of her bed?

Or shall I tell her not to listen, not to fill her head
With the silly stories of the other stupid children
Who mention you, by any name?

Shall I tell her the history and cut out the mystery;
Throw Zwarte Piet and Rudolph out with our dead Christmas tree?
Wouldn’t that be quite a shame?

Could you advise me, dear Nicholas?
I need someone to blame.
Could you help me?

Yours faithfully,

A. S. H. Velky


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]



All we lowly wingless grubs
That journey through this hostile place
Know something of the bargain struck
Between individual and race;
Between cartographer and tourist;
Between a mother and her cubs;
Between the brilliant and the boorish
To help us navigate at pace
The routes that help us feed and breed,
And our ancestors’ steps retrace.

All these arteries and veins
That import oxygen and pox
Are something greater than the sum
Of their dirt and dust and concrete blocks;
Of their letters, numbers and symbols;
Of their cabs, cars, barges and trains;
Of their travellers, sluggish or nimble,
And, yes, less; with their quays and locks,
Tolls, trolls, and prices – tall or small –
For all the spices in our woks.

All our gods have fled these paths
Now they don’t tread with feet of clay;
And their absence raises questions:
Will night give way, tomorrow, to day?
Will plans allow for human error?
Will contour lines confound the maths?
Will the beauty counterweigh the terror?
Such fancies keep our fears at bay
While our destinations, dates and fates
Drift further and further away.

All this progress that we make
With these engines and this oil
Makes me hesitate unduly,
Takes this labour and makes it toil;
Takes this neighbour and makes it stranger;
Takes this baker and makes it bake;
Takes this mobile-home and makes it danger,
Such that family becomes foil
For species till, lo: by and by,
To mobility we’re loyal.


Appears in:
Rhymes for all times [2015]