Cantre’r Gwaelod: the ballad of the sunken hundred
I climbed the coast to Dinas Head
one All Fools’ evening still
And the hedd of that high headland then
no curlew called to kill.
I stood on the trig-point like a statue,
my gorwel for to see:
Wexford way out to the west of me,
across the Irish Sea;
To my north, the Llŷn Peninsula
as clear as Waterford glass,
And all between was the blue waves’ sheen,
as glas as new-grown grass.
And it looked like nothing was living down there;
like nothing ever had:
Like maybe the gweilgi was a graveyard sown
with the ambitions of the mad.
And I fancied I heard a tolling carry
from the dwfn down below
As a black mass landed on the clifftop,
which I thought to be a crow –
Perhaps a chough? Though its bulk cast doubt;
and, when it turned, its brutal beak
Was gloomy as glo; and croaking, and slow,
this bird began to speak:
“Foolish man thinks itself apart
from that which its senses grasp.”
Its voice had no cerddoriaeth:
but a rough and rusty rasp.
A talking bird being nonetheless
beyond my common ground,
I stared back dumbly at the cigfran,
awaiting another sound.
“Have you nothing to say in your defence?”
demanded the indignant bird.
I asked myself had I the health
to credu what I had heard.
“It talks to itself, but not to us!”
the raven shrill declared.
I climbed lawr to approach the beast
But it just stood and stared:
Tilting its head, with an olewog eye.
“Who do you mimic?” I said.
It grunted in gruff disapproval, and shook
its hangman’s hood of a head.
“I speak for neb and all others,” it said.
“But to no end, I fear;
For you men have ears only to hear
the words you want to hear.”
“Then tell me what you would tell me,” I said.
“And I promise I’ll pay you heed.”
“Promise a blisgyn to the ocean floor,”
it said. “Just do the deed.
That body of dwr you gaze upon
was our childhood hunting ground.
Among its many fertile fields
were the choicest morsels found.
Till the tywysog of that fair place,
overdosed with wine,
Guiltless slept as the salt waves crept
to bury our hundred in brine.”
“A legend,” I said, “that I’ve heard before.
And one that every gwlad knows;
A story to worry each child who’s born
where rain falls and wind blows.”
The raven cocked its pen and looked
for a silent moment my way.
“Foolish man thinks tomorrows safe
from its deeds of yesterday.”
“What deeds of mine?” I snapped at the bird.
“Why blame you me for this?”
And on this note from the raven’s throat
came a swn, half-laugh, half-hiss:
“This sunken hundred was only one
of your kin’s forsaken lands.
And no cefngwlad across these wide islands
is free from the curse of your hands.”
The cymylau gathered above us
and the sea turned the colour of slate;
A calendar hoping to contain this scene
could surely display any date.
“Your brain is the size of a walnut,” I told it.
“I’ve no such power,” I said.
“No blood nor brine stains these dwylo of mine;
your culprits are centuries dead.”
The bird flapped up at my gwyneb,
before perching itself on the trig;
Shaking its shaggy ruff in a rage
And grunting like a pig:
“As are the beasts of the forest,” it squawked.
“And half of the pysgod too.
There will be little more than you and yours
by the time your kind are through.
Only a few milflwyddiannau ago
there were bogs and forests and fens;
Till you came to sow with arrows and bow
and to lock us in cages and pens;
“You drain the corsennau and the marshes,
lay all the forests low;
Raise silent cells for your mutant beasts,
reap death wherever you go.”
“But this lowland hundred you lament,”
I raised a bys to its beak.
“Which beast but man could have held back the tide
And plugged each fresh-sprung leak?”
It snapped the air as I drew back my hand:
“No need would exist!” it yelled,
“Had your ancestors cared for the tir that we shared
and the ancient oaks they felled.
“But you shaved the uplands bald and bare,
gouged wounds deep into the earth.
Brewed cas alchemical poisons to plague
the mother who blessed you with birth.
You assumed the mantle of mastery dros all other matter,
And milked the will of the wilderness
to make your children fatter.
Till to find land capable of feeding your greed
you had to snatch it back from the sea.
But the tonnau wouldn’t stand at your command,
nor leave you be.”
I glared at the raven and stooped to pick up
a carreg from among the ferns.
“Yes, the sea will still drown you if given the chance,
and the sun still burns;
And the gwynt will still throw down your buildings,”
continued its maddening rasp;
“And the lightning will strike and the fire will lick…”
And I felt the cold stone in my grasp.
“And the ice will still freeze all the gwaed in your veins
and the rivers will burst at their banks.
And the soil will cease to reward for your toil,
no matter your pleas and your thanks—”
I struck the bird cross the side of its skull
and it flopped, slack to the floor.
The raven had dim byd to answer that with,
so I whispered “Nevermore.”
The nos was gathering in from the East
and the sunset was rusty red,
That All Fools’ eve as I descended
the coast from Dinas Head.
And I thought about Cantre’r Gwaelod then
and the flooded lowland’s fate:
And when, I wondered, did those of that hundred
know the hour had grown too late?
Allwedd – Key
Welsh words listed in the order they appear.
hedd – peace, tranquility. gorwel – horizon; also, figuratively, the limit of one’s mental capacity. glas – blue, blue-green; also fresh or verdant.
cerddoriaeth – music or poetry. cigfran – raven; literally: meatcrow. credu – believe.
lawr – down. olewog – oily. neb – no one; or anyone/someone.
blisgyn – shard or shell or fragment. dwr – water. tywysog – prince or lord.
gwlad – land, as in country. pen – head. swn – sound or noise.
cefngwlad – hinterland or countryside; literally: backcountry. cymylau – clouds. dwylo – hands; two hands.
gwyneb – face. pysgod – fish (plural). milflwyddiannau – millennia; thousands of years.
corsennau – bogs or wetlands. bys – finger or digit. tir – land, as in soil.
cas – nasty or hateful. dros – over. tonnau – waves.
carreg – rock or stone. gwynt – wind. gwaed – blood.
dim byd – nothing; literally: no world, or nothing [in the] world. nos – night. Cantre’r Gwaelod – the Lost Lowland; literally: [the] Hundreddwelling [at] the Bottom.
The Atlantis or Lemuria of Welsh mythology. Inundated, according
to the story, in the 6th century AD; though science speculates this occurred around 7000 BC.
Poetry Birmingham, Issue 1 
In the Men’s Room [201?]
“Did you hear the one about the magic tractor? It was driving down the road, when it suddenly turned into a field.” – Anon
I: D roads
These back lanes are suggestive
Of ancient practices persisting.
Cows’ cloven hoofs’ squelches echo
Down steep-banked rows of sycamore hedges
Into littered drainage ditches.
Asphalt crumbles at the edges;
Black bitumen blushes an algae isthmus
Ushering blown leaves from this old cottage to the next
By fields whose names are only known and spoken
By the few whose fathers and mothers
Stuck it out here down the decades.
Defenders have been discontinued now,
But collies will jostle therein for decades yet –
Ejecting themselves at the first sign of slowing,
Following an impulse carried far back
In their brains, down their spines,
To catch the clouds between their teeth
And keep the shapes from shifting.
Black tracks furrow up soft roadside sod,
Churning symbiosis into desert stretches
Of trailing muck, smeared like diary entries
Out across languid afternoons.
The echo of engines filtered
Through blackthorn and bramble,
Bottled in dull demijohns
Of sloe gin and blackberry wine.
The rhythms of all these machines
Embroider sagas into tabby-woven bolts
That keep unreeling:
Fields yielding to the plough’s blades,
Planets spinning in a glitter-ball disco,
Silhouettes of embryos, growing
In lichen on the graves;
Frost-hardened hearts thawing,
Far-sighted eyes squinting,
Bent bodies still belonging,
Age aching, youth yearning,
Flesh degrading into dust,
Blood, milk, mud, forever flowing
And tractors turning
Chop the chives
We’ve had a power cut
Away the knives
A bit too much now
Fetch the electric racket
For the flies
This must be what it’s like to live
Not Hebron Carmarthenshire
The other one
The satisfying sound after the snail
Sails over the hedge
And hits the D road
Sample that strike
With a wombat mic
For a beat
Get to know it better
Reverb and such
We could do much
With that much satisfaction
I can’t get no
For my micronation
But the Jehovah’s Witness mission
Returned to us again today
For the first time since I painted
The coat of arms on the wall
That says DOUBT OVER ALL
And AMHEUAETH POPETH
Which I’m given to understand
Means more or less the same
But I suspected them this time
And hid under the desk
A year ago it was
We seem more open now
Our borders notwithstanding
The cattle grid
Where we bury dead petrol
And dog poo
The chicken-wire fence round the front
That wicker babel
Enclosing the compost heap
And this late afternoon
All along my watchtower
Comes a wailing sound
Down from Walton East way
Amid the buzz of strimmers
Cows and crows
A lone dog barking
And a lone frog croaking
From our north
While we’re lying
All the lowing
All the highing
Only aeroplanes are flying
In this heat like defeat
We are unknowing
Undeserving of this
Peace or of this delicious
Sovereignty we’ve yet to fight for
Yet to die for
Yet to do so slight a thing as
While we’re lying
Unearned but earning
Unlearnt but learning
I tried to stop washing my hair but you know
I was thinking
About trying to eat a bit less meat
We will lie
At flickering black mirrors
While unwashed windows cobweb greys
In our periphery
The trains that chunter in dim distance
Come or go
With all their joy or misery
For all it matters to we
Whose lawns are embarrassed
By unwilling haircuts
After so much unchecked thrusting
Having heartbreakingly become
So trusting as to go to seed
But never let it be said
We folk do anything much
Inasmuch as what’s observable when
The citronella insults the flea
Which ceases not to do its injury
I do not often wonder
At such incidents
What all this means to me
Or what I’d do
If I had more time
Fuck reading and writing
Slave all year
For a bottle
And build them again
As other things
To writing that masterpiece
I’d call “My Most Serene Republic”
Invent a private language
Look for stamps
On the internet
Phone a friend
A power cut has had us
Chop the chives
III: A warning for would-be ramblers
Beware the Public Footpath signs,
They’re put there to trap the tourists.
Merciful locals snap the plastic,
Leave the wooden ones to rot;
The kinder farmers let hedge-trimmers
Sever them as they rattle past
Or else erect the most oblivious
Fencing directly across them
As if the land itself had forgot
The laws and histories that have passed:
Proper battleground stuff.
What lurks behind is worse
Than mines in no-man’s-land.
The Bosnian countryside
Pales in comparison.
Rest uninsured and uninsurable
This isn’t just ugly
Brown bogs and broken-bottle grasses,
Bad, worse, worst luck;
You’re taking your life in your hands,
Gambling on the grace of cows
The size of elephants
That seem by the hoof prints, high
In the bottomless muck,
To either weigh as much as ants
Or to be up to something
You will sink to your shins first.
Then wet sod will suck
And you will lose a boot
When you extract the first foot.
Then another: taking root
For you, in spite of you;
Then down to your knees and
Now you’re really panicking;
The sounds around are turning up;
The silence is made deafening:
Nothing human anywhere near,
Not even so much as an engine
That’s operated by bloody beings:
No Gardeners’ Question Time here,
Just flesh flies buzzing slow, too close, and closer,
Heavy minotaur breath on the wind,
Lowing echoing off scheduled monuments
Stinking of shit not quite fully vegetal.
From ground-nesting birds
Buggering, helixwise, skyward, off
Leaving offspring below
As an offering to the rusted beasts
Of the moor and the mire
Implied by all this. Look:
They’ve built their own moats
Round Iron Age mottes with sycamore spires
Filled with piss and worse.
Catch the sun winking in
Petrol-hued spectrums shivering
Round distracted tractor tyres
On surfaces skin-thick.
Baileys of four-times-stomached, once-shat grass
Pocked like an asteroid’s acne.
If anyone saw they never said.
A shrug of the shoulders,
A shake of the head:
They don’t know
You: they never did,
Never do. Try not to move,
Feel the warmth from foul throats
Lift the back of your shirt
As meat spirits throw their voices
Across valleys where flowers never grow.
Flail your arms, finally.
Reach for a branch
That’s not dead, or you are,
And slowly wrestle for up,
To where cumuli are mutating
Into instruments of industry;
Or accept your fate: sink into it,
That lifeless humane mess
Where only appetites can breathe,
Where suffocation satiates,
Where nothing is really quite ever alive
Enough to believe in.
Everything’s a deeply held
Breath down there.
Primordial dude with an axe-wound
In his skull? What brought you here?
Did you come to take your dog for a walk
To kill some time somewhere, someone,
Before you took some wares over there?
Did you plunge flush misjudgement
Looking for the green dotted line
On the Ordnance Survey map
That came with the roundhouse
You found on Rightmove,
Printed in BC 1999?
Did you rein your horse and park it,
Stopping on the way to market,
On a whim in a lay-by, just maybe,
Spotting a Public Footpath sign?
While silhouetted behemoths
From thick fog emerged unseen behind,
Promising tractors turning up for purges,
Digging doggers’ graves?
Tractors churning up the verges;
Vehicles driven to depravation, in desperation
Due to the untimely defenestration
Of common-land agro-politicization
Made rarest meat served to itself –
For sovereignty, for national health –
Spurning self-help homilies,
These man-machines fed on brine called wine,
Told stories taller than crumbling bungalows
Of high-rise concrete boxes
Patrolled by tuberculous urban foxes,
Battery-farming swarming benefit tourists
Imported from imagined warzones
In Land Rover limousines
To feast on each other’s faeces –
In our back yards –
Like human centipedes,
Forcing our fair hands to shrink to fists
And turning the best of us
To an imagined life
I’m not a dentist, but my
Canines are wearing
Thin of enamel.
I’m not a racist, but my
Into a camel.
Somewhere deep within
This labyrinth of hamlets,
Long beyond where the concrete
And slumps to slate slag tracks –
By long-abandoned farmhouses
Of corrugated metal walls
With peeling paint the shades of scabs,
Which whistle mournful melodies
For the Atlantic gales –
Down overgrown bridleways
Littered with obsolete tools
Of agriculture’s yesteryear,
Chewed half to death by brambles
Trapping desecrated standing stones
That stand no more
And understand no more
The land they have inherited,
There is a roar
Comes echoing through bushes;
Shakes the branches,
Sends the birds away,
Rippling dirty flooded ditches
Blowing leaves and scattering sheep
And cattle down along the hedges:
Both animal and mechanical;
Sparking the ignition
Of a most unholy mission
Into so many minds of late grown cold
And hard as weather-beaten headstones
In untended situations
Whose inscriptions have been flattened
Under centuries of tears
And acid lichen.
This cry comes
From hydraulic lungs;
A beast that’s as much meat
As rust and metal,
Grown too far from its creator’s scheme
To understand which part is its heart,
And which its radiator;
Which part is its arsehole,
And which its combustion chamber;
From which ruptured organ
Its red diesel bleeds;
Or of whose cruel intention
Its cursed birth speaks.
Its teeth are pins,
Its bones are pipes,
Its eyes are misted windscreens
Crying milk and wiping all the time;
Its flesh is beef and lamb and featherless hen,
Tanned black by clinging clouds of blowflies.
Rotten, stinking, battery-acid burnt,
It staggers blind in circles
On tyred trotters
And hews great hunks
Of rocky earth in shovel hands
To fling them high and far;
To try to fell the clouds
That hem it in.
A wreck of a thing,
It does not work at all;
It is at war with itself.
And yet they will
Still feed it
V: The tractor run
“Gyrrwch yn ofalus / Please drive carefully”
And “30” says the roadsign. You’ll be lucky;
The village hall carpark’s full of noise and colour;
Garish paintjobs in tinted glasses, chattering anatomy
Of a farming community, framed for good by the mid-twentieth century:
Savoury, aspic, smoke-and-jelly, community values blown by globalist winds –
There’s a man from the telly talking Welsh to a camera,
Squinting in the scant shade of sickly sycamores.
And the sky’s embarrassed to be caught without its clouds on.
Slap on the suncream! It’s going to be a scorcher.
Parents are cruel caricatures of sons and daughters:
See them fussing over little ones squeezing themselves
Into spaces between brains and bumpers, tyres and asphalt,
Or toward trembling tractor engines, warm like wombs: rattling, clanking,
Shuddering with age and excitement. Home-made bunting fluttering above,
Scarred by pert pinking shears’ stuttering. Stop-start muttering
Of weather reports, polite retorts, essential repairs put off: windowframes
Unstained, constipated guttering, leaking tiles, lost lightbulbs, broken
Promises, bad habits gone fishing, out hunting foxes, hounds and rabbits,
Seeds sown too soon or late, too far afield or not at all;
Barren beds inviting invasive species, nosey neighbours’ noisy faces
Exchanging rumours: the funding from this and the duck race and pub quiz
Won’t be sufficient – won’t be quite enough – like the local shop
Like the butcher’s before, which most parents are too young to remember;
And come winter, the new crop of kids will have to go
To the next village – that way or this – or go without.
But the frozen sausages are thawing already in preparation for
The afternoon’s forecast and the run returning,
And tractors are turning already, in slow sequence,
Indicators clicking, like synchronized swimmers
Or Canada geese playing follow the leader – one after the other:
Mirror, signal, manoeuvre,
And they’re off!
A mustard-coloured Marshall 302 with a glass-cube cabin containing
A centenarian, Grade-II-listed, flat-capped gent in an unstained soapstone boilersuit;
A spherical chap in a chaffed baseball cap, seeming surgically attached to the seat of
A pillarbox red Fahr D270, with seat suspension that’ll rattle your soul;
The weary treasurer’s Massey Ferguson – looks like the one on the food labels!
Playgroup trailer clanking behind, kids and parents alike holding on for dear life;
A big David Brown with a shimmering cabin; didn’t catch the model,
All angles and glass like some insect’s eye, self-driving, could be, back to the future;
A lady in leggings and a floaty floral blouse, made-up, galvanized-steel-gate frown,
On a ’69 David Brown 880 selectamatic, bright white with a brighter red pipe;
And a Hunter S Thompson lookalike’s New Holland T7 Heavy Duty hauling
A twenty-foot blue feed-trailer with two avocado sofas full of wobbling toddlers;
Here’s a brand-spanking 2016 John Deere, green and yeller, gree-eeen and yellerrr,
Prideandjoy of sunburnt beefcake feller; belle, crosslegged, barefeet pressed to glass;
Next: a grizzled Elvis in an Adidas tracksuit on a brilliant-blue Ford 2000, ’64,
His collie snuffling the wind: perfumed like sheep-shit-smeared blue suede shoes;
A beardy bloke in camo gear on a Crazy Frog Deutz; a walrus-moustached uncle
With a king Charles spaniel, on… something which he must have built himself;
A warning-coloured waspish ’90s JCB Fastrac;
A ’55 Ferguson in battleship grey
And the flags are all snapping at the air:
Plenty of Pembrokeshires: blue and yellow cross; like a symmetrical Sweden
With a quartered Tudor rose;
Maybe more Draig Gochs? Red dragons to you Saes:
Green, green grass, and an overcast sky;
Some St David’s crosses on the couple at the back: that’s yellow (or gold?)
Against a field of black,
And I think I saw one Owain Glyndŵr:
Four rampant lions in red and gold quarters
(Or “or” and “gules” if you follow the rules):
That’s the one that lets you know we’re riding
Close to the Landsker Line
And we’re snaking slowly round Dungleddy,
Between the two great rivers that drain half this land
And spew into the sea down at Aberdaugleddau:
The Haven where Henry Tudor landed, in 1485.
Did he walk this line, up the B4329?
Did he stop here at Woodstock Cross for a time?
Not today – we don’t, anyway: packed lunches;
Ham sandwiches and Fruit Shoots aplenty,
And there’s been no pub on this spot for years…
Round Wallis and Scollock, down Little West way,
By Cartlett Brook, and Froghall, Crundale, Rudbaxton,
Colston and Wiston (with a silent T – don’t ask me why)
Across a low-flow ford, to squeals and applause,
Back up to Llawhaden (good luck guessing how the locals say that one)
To Gelli (made “Jelly” if you don’t Cymraeg)
Penffordd and Bletherston and back down to Clarbeston
By Stepaside Bridge, past the faded sign still nailed to the ash
Commemorating one Jacqueline Lawrence,
Or the last time we had a Labour MP
Before we (or they?) invaded Iraq
And the financial crash
Happening now? I hear a hiss.
Something seems amiss as we climb the home-stretch
That skirts the sloping south bank of the Syvni
(“Syfynwy” farther north, where more Welsh is taught)
That flows from the concrete slopes of Llys-y-Fran dam
Where the old farms sleep silent beneath slate-grey waves –
The asphalt’s cracking!
The ground is rumbling!
The children are wailing and cuddling their mums!
The tractors are juddering and clanking and steaming, unfolding
Arms like giant windscreen-wipers sprouting
And the chunky tyres are treading the air;
We’re climbing clouds that aren’t even there
And our wingspans are threading through blackthorn hedges
And fin de siècle standalone trees
And twigs are crackling and blackbirds are scattering;
We’re rising high up above the rivers and streams, and the drains and the lanes,
And the sheep and the cows are stampeding down the edges
Of ancient fields, and the pickups and hatchbacks look like ants from up here,
And the graveyards of churches and chapels alike are exhaling
In one wordless hymn, and a swirling breath more like life than death
Is rising on infernal thermals – and all our old aunts and uncles
And grandads and grans are coming up to join us, along for the ride
In their antique tractors, on their favourite horses – with donkeys, dogs and bicycles,
Cows and chickens and pigs – in funny old hats, funnier old clothes,
Their skeletons creaking and gummy prune faces are cracking with laughter
And parents are too scared for speaking, but littluns are chuckling along with it all;
There’s that lass whose dad hanged himself in his barn last autumn, her chubby hand
Grasping his outstretched index like it was made of warm flesh and hard bone,
Through the metal bars of the playgroup trailer; and she’s gappy-tooth smiling
As he’s gliding along, and it’s all okay because they’re all coming home
Because they’re always here, and they never really left – like we’ll never really leave
And we’ll never really anything if you believe, and we might if you won’t
So who cares if you don’t? Just keep it to yourself for the rest of our sakes,
For our spiritual health – hear the wail of the brakes, and the tractors are turning
And the ozone layer’s thinning and the icecaps are sweating but we’re for forgetting
Because the red diesel’s burning and all of us are winning
Because the tractors are steering, the tractors are wheeling
Casting angelic shadows all across this green land,
And we’re feeling the warmth of the sun like God’s hands
Playing us like piano keys on this Saturday morning; and we’re falling soft now,
The tractors are swarming, the tractors are forming a V
With the Massey at the head and the playgroup trailer like a banner behind
And we’re coming in to land and I think I’ve just spotted an unmapped
Bronze-Age encampment, or an Irish Déisi rath,
That’s never before been photographed –
Not even by Toby Driver –
Oh boy! And I don’t even care
That I left my phone at home;
I’m shedding tears now:
Tears of joy.
VI: “Tractors turning”?
Here we are now. There’s no returning.
That’s the stench of bridges burning.
I can’t believe what this has come to,
But I’ve done too much now to undo.
What are the tractors turning into? What are the tractors turning into?
I’d rather not have had to force you.
But you’ve had the brass, so here’s the horseshoe.
Your nose is bleeding. Here’s a tissue.
Days will pass before they miss you.
What are the tractors turning into? What are the tractors turning into?
I’m honestly not trying to stress you,
But there’s no one coming to your rescue.
Your beasts are profane; you’re no Hindu.
Here’s some propane for you to imbue.
What are the tractors turning into? What are the tractors turning into?
This room is cold. It smells of mildew
You should have upped sticks when they willed you.
Is this the best their money could build you?
Others will talk when I’ve killed you…
What are the tractors turning into? What are the tractors turning into?
Appears in: Live Canon poetry prize anthology [parts 1, 3 and 4: 2018]
Hexit [a pre-recorded reading of parts 1 and 3 in a live broadcast on October 31, 2019]
In the Men’s Room [201?]
From troubles of the world I turn to Alexander Lukashenko,
Man of the people, Daddy:
Sipping from a tiny espresso cup;
Smiling with a tennis racket, maybe;
Towelling his glistening forehead
With a three-times-folded napkin;
Looming over an inferior autocrat
In full Belarusian hockey gear
On the centre-line of a rink;
Introducing American actor Steven Seagal
To a watermelon – or, ideally,
Taking his favoured third son Kolya out
For a ride on a Harley-Davidson
Through the obedient streets of Minsk.
Yes, Alexander “former-chairman
Of the anti-corruption committee
Of the Belarusian parliament,
Of which he was the only deputy
To vote against the dissolution
Of his beloved Soviet Union,
Elected with a mandate to cull mafia conspiracy
And New World Order Zionism,
Who said Jews turned Babruysk into a pigsty
And Hitler wasn’t all bad;
He brought order and authority,
Better, anyway, to be a dictator
Than gay” Lukashenko.
Yes, a man with a hat that massive
Can pass me legislation any day.
And a man with a moustache that metallic
Can bring me pork scratchings on a metal tray
Through dry all-night diplomatic debates
Till Vladimir Putin puts down his plate of coffee-cake
And gives Crimea back to Ukraine,
And Sarah Palin records an acoustic cover
Of Yusuf Islam’s ‘Peace Train’
For a John Lewis Christmas ad campaign.
Daddy says opposition protestors
Should have their necks wrung like ducks,
And has the police beat seven shades of shit
Out of the other presidential candidates
Because he gives zero fucks
And zero Belarusian bucks
About the EU’s economic sanctions
Or the UN’s New Year’s resolutions.
He has to rig the elections against himself
To make his majorities less great,
And while few countries recognize the results,
It’s in the nature of haters to hate;
So Alexander doesn’t despair –
Or lose any sleep, or hair –
He’s always been more keen on hope.
Look! There’s a picture of Daddy and Kolya
With the Obamas, with the Pope.
When God was finally done stomping Belarusians into the soil
During numerous weary wars fought for others’ blood and oil,
He gave them their own Soviet for the Twentieth Century
And a circus strongman in uniform, upon its death to be their Daddy:
To protect them from the hypocrisy
Of representative democracy;
To maintain economic stability
In the face of Zionist conspiracy.
So when next you take some comfort in the notion of God’s grace,
Do a quick Google-image-search for Alexander Lukashenko’s face,
And recall that the dictator teaching his son how to scrimmage
Was created just like you and yours in the almighty’s own image.
So if God gave us flapjacks, flamingos, the Flaming Lips and flamenco,
He also gave the Belarusians Alexander Lukashenko.
And he’s probably laughing still at the stipulations in Daddy’s will.
The problem cannot be the solution. That’s never how these things work.
So from now on I would prefer to be referred to by the pronouns “it” and “its”. Of course you may use “him”, “his”, and “he” if you insist. Or any others you happen to like; if you’re talking about me in the third-person I probably won’t be around to hear you anyway. But rest assured I will also be referring to you as “it” and things belong or pertaining to you as “its”. You may be male or female or intersex. You may identify as any or all or none of these. I don’t care. To me you, me, we, are all its.
The idea that we deserve special differentiation from—or elevation above—abstract concepts, inanimate objects, or unsexable non-human animals, has never sat particularly well with me. Some rocks, for example, are amazing. Besides, in the vast majority of cases it seems unnecessary for you to be informed or reminded of what sex I am, or for me to know what sex you are, by passing reference. And on the rare occasions when it is actually important, you can usually work it out.
As for gender? Well, it doesn’t exist, does it. It’s not real. I’m coming out as gender-unwilling and gender-exempt. It doesn’t stop me being a male human; and nor does it stop me benefiting from what that entails. But I’m pretty keen on the idea anyway.
I’m not nowadays fond of consciously making real-life decisions or actions based on things that are not part of the same reality I’m deciding or acting upon. Nor do I want words for such unreal things to be applied to me. I’m not cis, nor trans, nor hetero, nor homo—unless you mean sapiens. If you’re interested enough to read this far you’re probably already aware of the linguistic distinction (in modern English parlance) between gender and sex. You’re probably comfortable with the notion that the latter refers to the biological and physiological reality of humankind, and that the former is a load of cultural baggage attached to the latter, usually directly or indirectly for the purpose of subjugating the typically physically weaker female sex.
So if you don’t identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, I’m not really surprised. Honestly, who does? If there really are people out there who are fully, 100% on-board with their society’s designated requirements for their maleness or femaleness, they’re probably either psychopaths or haven’t really thought about it hard enough. I think mostly people just assume that gender and sex are the same thing, or that nobody will even momentarily entertain them if they happen to have any issues with The Way Things Are. Any people in doubt might well be reinforced in the delusion that gender is conferred upon them by the act of birth alone because of the propensity of many people not to bother to honour the very important distinction between the terms “gender” and “sex”.
No definition will suit everyone (when has it ever?!) but an archived page from the WHO sums it up pretty neatly.
Some examples of sex characteristics:
Women menstruate while men do not.
Men have testicles while women do not.
Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not.
Men generally have more massive bones than women.
Some examples of gender characteristics:
In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work.
In Vietnam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate.
In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not.
In most of the world, women do more housework than men.
Of course those examples are neither comprehensive nor entirely perfect. I had a (male) friend who only had one testicle, following surgery. Some men have none. Women stop menstruating when their oestrogen levels decline; or never menstruate, if they’re born without a uterus. Nevertheless, the above lists are a pertinent reminder of what we’re generally talking about, either knowingly or unknowingly, when we use the words “sex” and “gender”. It is important to maintain a distinction between the two because one of these lists is real, whether or not we believe or want it to be, and the other is the result of our collective willingness to believe in something which is not real.
So if you don’t identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, as opposed to the gender, that’s trickier. What that says about you, I don’t know, and I’m unqualified even to hazard a guess.
I suppose I have a fatalist approach to these matters. Ah well, seem to be male—I probably thought; round about the age of four when I first became fully aware that (and how) girls and boys were different. Not necessarily what I’d have chosen, these testicles; but I might as well sit back and reap the privileges of my massive bones, my disproportionately high wages, and my disproportionately small share of the housework. Maybe one day I’ll go for a drive in Saudi Arabia. Maybe not.
But not everyone is like me. Most people have had much harder lives, for one thing, and might have had more reason to want to fight against the hand that fate dealt them. But also, many people are more enterprising of spirit than I am. Humankind incorporates a vast spectrum of personality types within (and between) its paltry two sexes. And for this reason alone our species is unlikely to rest until it has either:
A) facilitated the possibility for a complete reversal of the sex allocation dealt to us before birth by “natural” processes: in other words, Full Transition.
B) exterminated itself for some reason, or by some means, while in the process of trying.
Scenario A seems likeliest at the moment. But Scenario B could also feasibly unfold at any given moment, and—especially if you live somewhere with internet as bad as ours—with very little warning. Assuming for a moment that we’re heading for a Scenario-A future, let’s look on the bright side: many people who are unhappy with the sex they were born into (the body, the chemicals, and, yes, the societal baggage called “gender” which is by self-fulfilling prophecy conflated with the biological reality of female- or maleness) will be able to right the wrong that was accidentally done to them in the womb, or the lab, or wherever they grew from.
Great! Sort of. Kind of. But what then? Will we see more happiness? Hopefully. Maybe some. Certainly some relatively wealthy individuals will be able to enact their fantasies of turning their lives around, beginning again—not quite from scratch, perhaps, but with a new identity: one that feels to them, more like them. Men sick of the demands of society (the less housework, the more money, the ability to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, etc.) will pay handsomely to step into a woman’s shoes both literally and metaphorically for the first time. Perhaps foot-shortening surgery will accompany the Full Transition. Perhaps it won’t need to if the hormonal rebalancing has been begun young enough—depending, of course, on the legality accompanying the technology. Or perhaps our definitions of femaleness will simply expand to include biological females who were born male; and our definitions of maleness will change similarly.
It would be awful though, really awful, if the man becoming a woman, or the woman becoming a man, were to find that the grass is not, in fact, any greener on the other side of the fence, and that they have merely exchanged one prison for another. Awful, and expensive, materially and psychologically. I see no moral or logical downside to the seemingly inevitable progress toward Scenario A. Transhumanism is our destiny; probably already our reality. Transhumanism or extinction. Maybe, probably—almost certainly, eventually—both. But I worry that our technological capacity might soon overreach our social and societal readiness. Notwithstanding the perpetual global inequality necessary to drive technological progress (that’s not what this blog-post is about) our society’s absolute adherence to the laws of gender—a thing that, let us remind ourselves, does not exist; and that is what this blog-post is mostly about—surely means that any potential progress toward a greater good offered by scientific and technological advances in the field of transsexual transhumanism will be utterly scuppered by the unreadiness collectively conferred upon us due to our frankly backward adherence to the mythology of the two dominant gender roles which have defined human society for as long as history allows us to see back. I say two dominant gender roles. Obviously one of them has been a bit more dominant than the other.
The problem cannot be the solution.
Gender can be happily ignored by many. But for those of us who see it, we can’t unsee it. Men are unhappy being men. Women are unhappy being women. Girls wish they were boys. Boys wish they were girls. Intersex people might wish they were one or the other; then again, they might wish there was a place in society for them as they are, since they, like men and women, boys and girls, but unlike masculinity and femininity, are also an inevitable part of reality as we know it.
Now, before I go on, and at some point, hopefully, stop, I thought I’d best mention that I do know that the actual effects of gender are real. That the effects of gender are as real as the destruction wrought by hurricane season in hurricane countries across the hurricane-prone bits of the globe—albeit less seasonal in nature.
But this doesn’t mean that gender is as natural as the wind. To argue that everything which exists is natural by definition, is not the same as arguing that everything which exists is inevitable. The climate we have now is an inevitable result of the delicate balance of natural physical forces on, in, and around our planet; which balance includes but is not limited to us. Thus, the wind blows, and we see trees bend; or we hear windows rattle, or our train gets delayed. Most scientists would agree that we’ve collectively “made an impact” on the planet. One day our species might become so powerful that, like the gods in our books, we can claim that the wind blows when we exhale. This is not currently the case; but gender is an invention entirely born of the human imagination. Gods do not decide how we dress. We do. We took our sexual cues, and collectively ran with them. Men, having more massive bones, are—on average—better at running. No matter that women are better at menstruating or lactating; or that quite literally anything a man can do (short of producing spermatozoa to fertilize an ovum) a woman can also do… Because gender dictates that women should wear clothing that inhibits their movement. Gender dictates that men should have the upper hand in their relationships with women. Gender dictates that a man should be paid more money for doing the exact same thing a woman does.
A Brave New Gender outlook might soon dictate that biological men can compete with women in sports events globally. This might seem questionable, given that global professional competitive sports are one of a very few contexts in which the biological reality of maleness and femaleness are unashamedly acknowledged in all their primitive brutish glory; rather than hinted at in euphemistic or deceptive ways. But let’s not forget that gender already plays a massive role here too. Male sports stars are paid much more than female sports stars; even, objectively, disproportionately more in terms of the actual difference in their physical performance. So what if a man decides he wants to be a woman, and then she, with her new pronoun, runs faster than a load of women who happen to have been born women? So what if she, and not one of them, wins the gold medal? In the grand scheme of things, at least this serves as a clear and colourful metaphor for our collective attitudes toward gender and sex. After all, a woman is very welcome to become a man; and then he, having dropped the S from his pronoun, can run against other men and enjoy an immediate physical disadvantage; albeit one mitigated by the possibility of maybe one day cruising down to Medina in a Pontiac Firebird while his husband or more probably his wife is at home doing the ironing.
Yes, gender dictates a lot of awful crap for men to adhere to as well. It favours men, overall, because men were presumably largely responsible for shaping it; or at least because the physical reality of men’s tendency to be able to overpower women convinced them either consciously or unconsciously that nature intended them to be the everlasting beneficiaries of its inbuilt disparities. But it seems unlikely to me, given how far we have deliberately stretched notions of nature already, that gender is ultimately able to be beneficial for our species at all. It sows discord and misery. It arms our enemies (even our potential friends) with ammunition to use against us. It makes people act awfully to one another. It makes people angry with people who want to go against its rules. It is a freeloader, a poser, and a fraud. It seems to be an intrinsically important aspect of society; something which affords us freedoms and happiness. It isn’t, of course, but it seems to be; and that seeming seems to make us believe it is. And us believing it is, demonstrably makes us enforce its rules as though it really were.
No wonder some people are unhappy about it. No wonder some people feel that their gender-role is a prison from which they want to escape. And since gender is more commonly (though incorrectly) associated with physical reality, why change your mind when you can change your body? Clothes, make-up, hairstyles, etc. People have been doing it for centuries. Millennia. If you can afford it now, or if your society can afford it, there’s hormones, surgery, medication. Perhaps it’s not that you don’t want to change your mind. Maybe you can’t change your mind. Maybe you shouldn’t have to. Humans have been adorning and modifying their bodies since humans existed. For social and ceremonial purposes, or just because they want to. Clothes, tattoos, make-up, prosthetic limbs, jewellery, circumcision, foot-binding…
Why must society’s requirements for the rules for male and female appearance and behaviour inhibit personal freedoms? There is only ever one answer: control. Men control society. No, not me as far as I know—at least, not consciously. Not necessarily you, if you’re a man, either. And not some shady group of men who meet weekly by candlelight in a cellar to exchange secret handshakes, drink expensive liquor, and cackle about the awful things they’ve done to women since they last met. Not just them, at any rate. But that vast transhistorical network of relatively powerful individuals down the millennia who have really succeeded in shaping the world we inhabit today. Those who made a mark. The chiefs, the warlords, the clerics, the kings, the emperors, the kaisers, the czars, the presidents, the prime ministers and the CEOs. They’re #notallmen. But most of them were. And most of them still are.
There’s a line in a song by a band I like (“Rain, Steam and Speed” by The Men They Couldn’t Hang): “Some men build a monument / Some men build a tomb / Some men move the world around / To give them breathing room.” It’s a great song. A very masculine song, I suppose; a physical song, and a workers’ song, about the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, I was thinking about that last bit especially: “Some men move the world around / To give them breathing room”. That sort of sums it up. It’s true. And I like it. I don’t like it because I like it. I like it because it’s true. Imagine how much harder it must be to move the world around if you’re a woman—if you’re a woman you might not have to imagine very hard at this point—and what if “moving the world around to give you breathing room” is not considered within the remit of your “gender role”, but, say, wearing a corset is?
The world we live in is the Men’s Room. Call it “Earth” if you will, but this represents it falsely. It is not all rich soil; but it is all masculine controlled space; legal fictions passed off as nature. The desert, the steppes, the tundra; the rice-paddies, the wheat-fields, the factory-farms; from the American flag planted on the moon (by men) right down to the heaps of plastic collecting in the Mariana Trench: this is our world now. We have remade it in our image. Every inch of it is mapped, and catalogued, and valued—at least in the financial sense of the word. We have made the Men’s Room, like we latterly made god, a stern unpredictable patriarch.
It might seem, to the scientists tasked with the undertaking, that achieving a Full Transition between man and woman, woman and man, or man and superman, is the Great Task facing humankind. (That or recreating woolly mammoths while simultaneously driving black rhinoceroses to extinction.) But, for me, transhumanism must begin—can only truly begin—with the obliteration of the great vast plastic fraud of gender, and (as a stretch-goal) all other associated imagined entities that are bound together, siphonophorelike, encircling us with barbs bared as we dive deep for something greater: some perfect pearl.
Perhaps the plundering of oyster-beds isn’t the best metaphor I could deploy here. But we could probably, theoretically, individually and collectively, enjoy ourselves more—hopefully at the expense of fewer other (human and non-human) organisms—before we die. Spend less time worrying, hating, hurting, feeling guilty or put-upon; watching our backs.
I understand that this post has been a bit of a boggy ramble. It’s a bit of a dump, I admit; and probably doesn’t even constitute information, for the most part. Much of this has been swimming around my brain over the past few years, but hasn’t managed to make it out into any kind of literary shape.
The relationship between nature and destiny is, after all, what I’ve been trying to keep on my mind while writing my third poetry book, In the Men’s Room; which task seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time, and is still not fully complete. It’s not all about sex and gender, the book. It’s also about ecology, and class—among other things. I’m fascinated by the inherent and enduring inequality in human society, and how big a role gender plays in that, and what it all means for our relationship with the reality we inhabit. There are no poems in it about whether or not women-only shortlists for British political parties should include trans-women. And there are no poems about gender-neutral toilets. Although there is one poem in it about defecating, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing. And another in which I speculate about why men’s toilets specifically often have faeces spattered across the walls, floor, and—if you’re a woman you might not believe this, but it’s true—the ceiling.
I don’t aim through my art to tell people what should be (as if I had a clue); but rather to ask why things are how they are, and whether the way things are is the way they have to be. Of course, I am just a man, albeit a self-important and recently self-declared gender-exempt man; so it’s entirely possible that a combination of my genes and my conditioning might persuade me to end up doing the exact opposite of the thing I’m meaning to do, and to not quite realize it. For which, if for nothing else here, I offer the following draft poem that will probably open the collection when, or if, it finally materializes:
For all the unpicked blackberries,
All blistered, blue and furry;
For all the hard, green, knotted burs
Brushed from the brambles early;
For every drop of purple ink
That’s stained my index finger
While interrupting news reports
Whose morbid verbs would linger
Among the sunlit dustmotes as
I overstuff my freezer;
For every infant filament
Lost to the Tangle Teezer;
For every drop of diesel
That drips on the forecourt concrete;
For every broadsheet crossword
I have ever failed to complete;
For each particle of water
I diverted by mistake
From becoming what it ought to,
Be that river, sea, or lake;
For all that I have ever missed
By being in a hurry,
And all that I have ever brought
To you by way of worry,
I am sorry.
The river rises with the rains
And I feel thunder in my veins
And I feel thunder in my bowels
And I fear trouble in the drains.
The windows rattle, the wind howls;
The branches shiver, the sky scowls;
And I rush out to stow my tools
And one dog whines; the other growls.
The weather makes and breaks the rules;
The roads are soon closed, then the schools.
The electricity soon goes
And we are taken, thus, for fools.
The bough will break when the wind blows:
The final reckoning, the throes.
The fatberg forming in the pipes:
The bogwoppit both sees and knows,
And audits nappies, condoms, wipes;
And tigers never change their stripes
And burgers never better brains
And entities revert to types:
The river rises with the rains
And I feel thunder in my veins
And I feel thunder in my bowels
And I fear trouble in the drains.
Appears in: In the Men’s Room 
Notes: The title “Trouble in the drains” is taken from Chapter 6 of the children’s book Bogwoppit, written by Ursula Moray Williams and illustrated by Shirley Hughes. The Bogwoppit is a fictional, critically endangered, marsh-dwelling, semi-flightless bird. In the book the animal is believed extinct. Yet it is also simultaneously responsible for tempting the heroine Samantha’s parents overseas (to study it) and for kidnapping her cantankerous aunt-turned-foster-mother, Daisy, after taking up residence in the sewerage system of her Victorian mansion. In this poem, it should be noted, the Bogwoppit serves primarily as a metaphor.
“In the Men’s Room” is the third volume of poems in the Has Doubts series, written by Alexander Velky.
Crowdfunding for this volume fell short in late 2018 and thus its future is uncertain.
The theme of this book is the relationship between nature and destiny, with a specific focus on mankind’s influence on its habitats and its social structures, and on the related propensity for mankind to conflate itself with men, as illustrated in the frequent usage context of the word itself.
You can read a few of the poems and watch a couple of video performances by following links from the contents list below. The poems now intended for inclusion are these:
Cantre’r Gwaelod: the ballad of the Sunken Hundred
We fell asleep beneath red leaves
And left the goats to ramble.
I dreamt of apple blossom,
You dreamt of apple crumble;
I type all this into my phone
And fruit becomes computer.
I filter my photography
To make my dog look cuter,
And all my friends are far away
Now they fit in my pocket;
And every thought’s a cliché now
So every second’s “fuck it”.
We fell asleep beneath bare branches,
Left the goats to ramble.
I touched my palm upon your chest
And felt your ribcage tremble.
I endeavour to express this
Like milk into a pail
But the sentiments turn sour
As in a fairytale.
The boys are crying wolf again
And everyone’s afraid;
The stars have fallen from the sky
But all is safe inside.
We fell asleep beneath the blossom,
Left the goats to wander.
I dreamt about a boat at sea,
You dreamt the squalls and thunder;
Washed up on dark desert sand,
We wake up in the future.
Emoting through emojis now,
We’ve kama for some sutra;
But the best of all our tools
Are blaming us for badness,
And all our fading danger signs
Are wearing thin of redness.
We fell asleep beneath ripe fruits
To caprine rumination.
I woke to find a note that said
You’d left for the train station.
You’re working in the city now;
You’re working for survival.
I’m living for the love of it,
Awaiting your arrival.
I’ll pluck the apples from this bough
When they are good and ready,
And we’ll have apple crumble then
If we’re still going steady.
Appears in: Live Canon poetry prize anthology 
In the Men’s Room 
Notes: Concerning the title: in heraldry, “attitude” refers to the position of an animal; “rampant” in this respect indicates the animal is on its hind legs – a position commonly found in supporters (or attendants): figures placed on either side of the escutcheon (or shield), usually depicted as holding it up.