Category Archives: Poems

Tractors turning

Tractors turning

“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
Into rust.

 

II: HelloFresh

Finally
Chop the chives
We’ve had a power cut
Away the knives
Survival thrives
If anything
A bit too much now
Fetch the electric racket
For the flies
This must be what it’s like to live
In Kinshasa
Mogadishu or
Hebron
Not Hebron Carmarthenshire
Obviously
The other one
Zap
Crack
The satisfying sound after the snail
Sails over the hedge
Into Wales
And hits the D road
Sample that strike
With a wombat mic
Loop it
For a beat
Get to know it better
Reverb and such
Reverse it
Slow it
We could do much

With that much satisfaction
I can’t get no
Diplomatic recognition
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
In Welsh
But I suspected them this time
And hid under the desk
A year ago it was
Last time
I think
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
Too human
Drifting intermittent
Down from Walton East way
Amid the buzz of strimmers
Or grass-cutters
Ravens grunting
Cows and crows
Coming
Going
Growing
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
Violating airspace
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
Lie for
While we’re lying
Unearned but earning
Unlearnt but learning
And tractors
Light refractors
Always turning
Into rinse
Repeat
We lie
Replete
I tried to stop washing my hair but you know
We lie
Replete
I was thinking
Very hardly
Seriously
About trying to eat a bit less meat
We will lie
And stare
At flickering black mirrors
While unwashed windows cobweb greys
In our periphery
The trains that chunter in dim distance
Come or go
Or stay
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
But bleed
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
Make wine
Slave all year
For a bottle
Dismantle
Tractors perhaps
And build them again
As other things
Get around
To writing that masterpiece
I’d call “My Most Serene Republic”
Invent a private language
Look for stamps
On the internet
Maybe
Phone a friend

A power cut has had us
Chop the chives
Finally.

 

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:
High-tensile barbed-wire;
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
Dastardly.

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.
Disappearing whistling
From ground-nesting birds
Buggering, helixwise, skyward, off
(What larks)
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.
What’s up,
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
Of crime.

I’m not a dentist, but my
Canines are wearing
Thin of enamel.

I’m not a racist, but my
Tractor’s turning
Into a camel.

 

IV: Brenintractor

Somewhere deep within
This labyrinth of hamlets,
Long beyond where the concrete
Becomes pothole-pocked
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:
Awesome, awful,
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,
Untransformable muscle–machine
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
Spitting steam
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,
Raging blindly
All hours:
It does not work at all;
It is at war with itself.

And yet they will
Still feed it
Their firstborns.

 

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!
Here’s:

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
But

What’s this
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 –
Ah!
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
Feathers
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;
Look!
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?]

Video:

Big American fridge

Big American fridge

I often lie awake and wonder
About the things that I would like
If money were not an issue,
If space were not an object;

How much my life might change,
And how much might stay the same,
If I were suddenly freed from
The common burdens of my age.

Yeah, maybe I would like a fast car
To take a road-trip from here to Alaska;
Or a holiday in Svanetia;
A postcard to say “Guess where I am?”

A new suit cut properly to fit –
Not from TK Maxx;
And a new set of diamond-tipped drill-bits
To penetrate ceramic and glass;

A giant billboard to advertise
My fourth poetry collection;
A lawnmower that runs on sunshine;
And critical appreciation;

And a big American fridge.
Yeah: a big, American, fridge.
The kind of fridge a cat could get lost in:
A big American fridge.

They say you can’t take it with you when you go.
Well, what do they know?
They say money can’t buy you happiness;
But money can buy you marshmallows.

And money can buy you more money.
And money can buy you more time.
And yours can buy all of mine:
Dollars in my dime.

And I’d like a memorial stone
For when I succumb to cirrhosis or gallstones.
And then you can leave me all alone
In a field with a view of another.

And maybe there’ll be one little river
To wash away my bladder and my liver
And maybe even one little bridge
Over my big American fridge.

Appears in:

In the Men’s Room [201?]

Video:

The weeks before St Dogmael’s Day, 2019

The weeks before St Dogmael’s Day, 2019

I. London, 29 April

Whoever knows these words will not taste death.
Whoever hears and knows them not will rot.
This morning the old Royal Mews is overcast;
The atmosphere is closed, each breath is hot.
Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is occupied
By some Tigris chimera gazing sentinel
Toward the Thames, keeping the Queen’s seat warm:
An ancient beast of bull and bird and man
Constructed from recycled Middle Eastern packaging;
This Lamassu of Nineveh declaring that
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.
No pasarán, proclaims the art: we must resist
The feral pigeons exorcized by Livingstone;
The Parliament Square protestors for, and against, Brexit;
The Islamic State’s new nation, new made stateless;
The fresh extinction of each frail today by fatal dusks.
Tourist herds choke up the Low Emission Zone;
The royal parish church’s pillars flex antiquity,
Flash smiles for the National Portrait Gallery.
A hubbub among hubbubs, the other side of a bus:
Martin of Tours has cleaved his paludamentum in two
And offers up the cloth, draped on his gladius,
To the Big Issue seller outside Pret. Lest we forget:
Vice-Admiral Horatio, marooned for now, unkissed
In his crow’s nest, begs lemonade and watered wine
Of low-slung clouds and lonely rooftop gales:
England expects that every man will do
Something among these dark square miles of pasts forgot.
But who will dare ask why? And who will dare ask what?
Whoever knows these words will not taste death.
Whoever hears and knows them not will rot.

I eat my seedy breakfast bar and drink my juice,
And tighten and untighten my silk noose.
I try to recall how this bench felt half my life ago
When I would sit with tinny walkman headphones on
And feed the shellshocked mock-rock doves crisp crumbs:
Hard against my buttock bones through knots in jeans.
The same, I’m sure; the same and completely different:
The same as Holbein’s Ambassadors’ anamorphic skull
Might strike me had I the time to stand before it today.
If life is long then death is length itself, the promise made.
I say: at the age of five, Jesus probably did not
Fashion twelve sparrows from Galilean clay
One sunny Sabbath morning, and sit and watch,
Spellbound, as each bird flickered its ecstatic welcoming
Of the divine spark, and shook, took wing, and flew away.

A phonecall from Zoe in marketing
At one of the rural-broadband solutions companies.
If you bring forth what is within you,
What you bring forth will save you;
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
What you do not bring forth will destroy you,
She says; or at least I think she says.
I rise to go and loiter at the glass lift to St Martin’s crypt,
Because the hour of its opening is near.
Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

 

II. Witton Gilbert, 8 May

If the kingdom is in the sky, it’s for the birds.
If the kingdom is in the sea, it’s for the fish.
If the kingdom is on the pavement by the North Road bus-stop
Opposite Wharton Park, it’s for streaming Prefab Sprout
On Spotify: From Langley Park to Memphis;
The Gunman and Other Stories: the rain
In Durham is different from the rain in Wales.
One thing you learn from travelling is that the rain,
The sunlight, the bus seats, the mobile network coverage;
None of these are quite the same from one place to the next.
You might think you recognize the manner in which the buildings
Look embarrassed when reflected in the puddles;
Or something in the sombre mood of a cathedral overseeing
Unforeseen events and trying to stay impartial;
Or the inalienable right of an unemptied litter bin
To offer a greasy paper bag to the wind
Or a fat plastic bottle to the tyres of a taxi.
But you are only thinking of similar things;
Trying to become the bin, having over-indulged,
Perhaps, at the Lebanese restaurant catering to
Affluent students and frugal academics –
A plateful of chicken livers, hummus, and babaganoush;
And a stack of flatbreads by way of cutlery
While a young man who sounds French persuades
A young woman who looks Chinese that she wants to order
The grilled halloumi wrap, without even looking
At what else the menu has to offer. Or trying
To become the cathedral, stoic amid the storm
Of half-baked opinions, policies, ideals proffered
By the younger of two clever gay students on a second
Or third date; trying to pretend you are above,
Too wizened to want to contribute to such base-level
Operations, and certainly would not; no, at least not but
For the want of another large glass of Lebanese white
And a friend. Or trying to become the converted
Student accommodation in some Georgian terrace
Embarrassed by – what? The news? The weather? The politics?
The economy? If any of this is the kingdom though, it looks
Too removed from you; no matter how hard you squint
For the buried reflection. If you are not in it, you think,
How can it be said to be in you? The self, and all else;
Too much dualism to fathom a truth from thirds.
If you cannot know yourself, you can but wish.
If the kingdom is in the sky, it’s for the birds.
If the kingdom is in the sea, it’s for the fish.

I have planned these visits carefully;
If the weather was fine, I told myself,
I would walk the four miles back from Witton Gilbert
To Durham city centre via the derelict Beaurepaire Priory.
Now, since it has been said that you are my twin
And true companion, examine yourself.
The weather is foul, but I cannot examine myself on a bus.
I’ve been told. So since the forecast feels wet, but not too cold,
I opt to brave the county’s footpath network, and descend
From Witton Dene into the vale of the River Browney,
Where disused railway lines have been reclaimed for cycle-paths
And fields of oilseed rape are quiet but colourful company.
The churchwarden had promised or threatened to accompany
If the weather was fine; but the weather is foul
So I will break in my new walking boots alone
Till by the time I have reached the B-road
They have begun to break me: rendering me derelict.
And, for the trees, I do not see the priory.

Give to Caesar such things as are Caesar’s.
Give to God such things as are His. Give me
Such things as are mine: Dinarius, Tiberius.
Give to Dives and take from Lazarus.
Contactless donations: a tale as old as crime.
I rescue my suitcase from the reception at the inn
And stagger to the station, wet and sweating, just in time.

 

III. Walkhampton, 13 May

Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul.
Woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.
For a wilderness, Dartmoor is awfully civilized.
The road that labours its way from Plymouth
Suffers little of its destination to encroach;
Those nameless tors are half-familiar though,
And invite the mapless to hazard suggestions.
What is the soul of this place, and does it depend
On its crust, or its contours? The bed and breakfast
Is airy and hums with absent activity. The room
Is much richer than its urban equivalents:
The complementary air is not even bottled;
Breakfast is a box-ticking horoscope;
A schoolchild’s tray in the corner invites boots.
The pregnant woman in the pub across the way
Calls me dear and darling, suggests the best spot
For people-watching, from which, after polishing off
A wedge of steak pie and a shovelful of chips
And half a packet of frozen peas, I watch her
Pausing in the passage between the snug and the lounge
For a moment’s mute reflection. The ale is heavy,
Like burdens should be; so I know that before
I drink another I should walk the three miles round
To the village with the amusingly rude name –
To photograph myself with its sign, to test my blisters,
Discard my shatter-resistant shattered sunglasses
On the spot I find someone else’s, to wonder
If I’ll ever retrace these wasted footsteps
Or whether the owner of these will, only to find mine.
Well, things are not always as we recall them.
Memory cannot be trusted to tell us the truth
About ourselves. A rambler with a camera risks
Coming between a mare and her foal. Crapstone.
The blossom of the hawthorn is said to smell
Of rotting meat; to contain a common chemical,
And yet to be quite good to eat. I tried a leaf once
But it tasted like a leaf: nothing more nor less.
Sunday night and the Co-Op is closed. Worse luck.
The pastel-shirted men and perfumed women
Have mostly left the pub, and the carpark is sore
With their removal. I read nothing because
I finished my book on the train. Alone with
My thoughts – or rather, my phone – I try
As usual to massage my public image
Into something at once enigmatic and whole.
Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul.
Woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.

I wait on Walkhampton Common for two hours
Like some character in a computer game.
A pony comes to drink from the stream by my feet
But no brigands set upon me. St Mary’s stands high
Above the village, but far below this low stone row
Protruding through the turf like ancient teeth.
The south and the west of the county sprawled out before me,
The sun beats down its fists and I kid myself that I can
Just ignore it; face the other way. Lounge behind
A parasol of gorse. Hope I will not be skeletalized
Like this sheep was. Scorched? The records of Barbosa
From the early 16th century claim that, at that time,
St Thomas’s tomb in Madras was well maintained
By a Muslim who kept a lamp always burning there.
But I misread that as “lamb” and had absolutely the
Wrong impression about the scene for half a day:
Picturing charred meat, and heat-lamps, and a spit.

A shepherd had a hundred sheep. The largest strayed.
He left the others and sought it out, by day and night;
Through sun and rain, both high and low. And, finally
When he found the creature, he whispered in its ear:
I love you much more than the ninety-nine.
The rector is quietly proud to inform me
He’s recently accepted a promotion to
The archdeaconry. He said on the phone he was
In sales, not management; but the weather I requested
Was served nonetheless. As I am leaving, he shows me
The grave of a lad who once got lost in the mist
Up on Dartmoor – the villagers paid for a tomb
To serve as a warning to others. He died in July.
I catch a cold on the return journey. The next morning,
In the shower, I find two ticks embedded in my waist.

 

IV. Pickersleigh, 17 May

If two make peace under one roof, say to the mountain
Mountain, move, and it will move away.
No one made peace in Great Malvern today;
Or at least if they did, they did not tell it to
The hulking mastery of the Malverns.
Last time I was here I bought two poetry books
In a second-hand bookshop. The woman
Who served me asked me where I had come from
And when I said I lived in the shadow
Of the Preselis she seemed impressed: Carn Ingli
Is a holy mountain, she said. Aren’t they all? I replied,
Somewhat facetiously perhaps – but aren’t they all?
The springs that riddle these bald hills – Moel Frynau –
Were holy wells before the water was bottled
And if St Brynach found solace on Angel Mountain
How do we know St Dogmael didn’t find more, or better,
On Talfynydd, Foel Feddau or Foel Cwmcerwyn?
I am collected from the station by the Churchwarden:
No pilgrimage for me to make today.
No time for mountain-climbing nor mountain-moving:
I’d rather not see what’s underneath anyway;
And but for the fact of being self-employed
I’d have stayed in bed this morning,
The bug I picked up in Plymouth or thereabouts
Having laid me low, but not quite low enough
To stall my arrival at this week’s second Marychurch.
We discuss the dedications while I focus
My DSLR to capture the scaffolding
On the gable end of this brick building.
No medieval missionary here:
The church apparently attracts accidental Catholics
Or accidentally attracts deliberate Catholics.
I suppose they see a modern building
And do the maths. They sometimes stay, but they don’t come back.
No wonder so many mountains as yet remain,
If what’s known to be so can be trumped by what’s thought untrue.
If two make war under one roof, another roof
Will soon be required – or else the first will fall.
And if a roof should fall, why not the sky as well?
Much of this I think but, being uncertain, little say.
If two make peace under one roof, say to the mountain
Mountain, move, and it will move away.

Seek and do not stop seeking till you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled, you will marvel and rule over all.
They invite me to lunch, and we talk about life:
About life; around life; over life; through life;
But not under life; nor quite after life.
The vegetable soup is the sort of thing
That soothes sickness, psychologically;
Quite unlike the can of Red Bull and Ginster’s slice
I left in the station cafe in Hereford,
Dashing to arrive fifteen minutes early for my train.
I knew no vicars when I was young and impressionable;
There was a Catholic priest who came to see us once
Or twice. He pretended to remove his thumb, but
Even at the age of… five, I think it was,
I could tell an illusion from a miracle.
Rabbi, my mouth is utterly unable to say
What you are like, I might have said, I might have thought.

I’m worried about being found out. My doubt,
My cynicism, my inability to suspend
Disbelief, even for lent: but whatever her, or his,
Intent, they give the best impression of calm compassion
And simply meaning well: simply trying to make
The time spent on this earth more heaven than hell.
Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed…
Doubt. Doubt thyself. Doubt even if thou doubtest thyself…
Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Doubt all. Doubt even if thou doubtest all.
My doubts are yet impressed with each footfall.

 

V. Bluntisham, 20 May

The kingdom is within and without you:
Split a piece of wood, or lift the stone, and you will find me.
I am the smell of stale tobacco and leather
In the heart-rot of the ash tree I split
Last spring; I am the dark-loving, wriggling thing
Beneath the slate lintel I dug from the river;
I am each sap-cracked shoot of Japanese knotweed
That will not get to go to seed this June;
And yes, I am each plastic bag of household waste
The man from Llangolman throws in the river;
But moreover, I am the man at the cashpoint
Up the road from the Cromwell Museum
In Huntingdon, and on my way to Bluntisham.
These villages are shaped like hooks, I think.
I pass the sign for Houghton and Wyton
Where my mother-in-law lives, and my father-in-law lived,
And can’t recall what was the conclusion:
Was one meant to indicate left or right
When coming on from the slip-road, westward?
These mad machines are all we have for beasts;
There is no megafauna here: this place was civilized.
Blessings on the lion if a human eats it,
Making the lion human. Foul is the human
If a lion eats it, making the lion human.
Lead-theft is rife in this corner of England:
Thieves go where spires pierce the sky: St Dogmael’s
In Mynachlogddu is always open
With nothing to hide, and nothing to steal.
Lead to keep the rain out is hardly gold and gems,
But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty
And it is you who are that poverty.
And though I am being paid quite handsomely to journey here
I barely recognize my reflection
In the upper-deck window of the bus;
Though I would make myself a whole nation
If I could only find the right foundation.
Show me the stone which the builders rejected;
It is the cornerstone, I remind me.
The kingdom is within and without you:
Split a piece of wood, or lift the stone, and you will find me.

It takes an age, once I am done, to get out of the fens.
I ride the A-roads between flat fields, bread-baskets,
On the tops of empty double-deckers,
Daydreaming about that time in 1999
I fell asleep in the same seat between
Winchester and Fair Oak to the rattling
Of branches against the glass, dim behind
Whatever Californian pop-punk I had taped
From someone else’s CD yesterweek,
And awoke to a shower of shattered glass
And cuts as thin as filaments across my brow and cheek.
I wonder how anyone who travels for a living
Is not an alcoholic. Last night’s hotel room
Across from King’s Cross, gasping over Swinton Street,
AKA the A501, would drive a saint to drink.
And no one ever accused me of being a holy man.
I re-read the Louis MacNeice on the train:
An extract from Autumn Journal about
The 1938 Oxford by-election.
The choice then being to appease or not to appease.
Peterborough next week: the choice being Brexit
And antisemitism or Brexit
And islamophobia. We try to construct
Connections amid the chaos of order:
Because it’s always reassuring to observe
A border that looks like a border.
I began this job on my dad’s birthday
And have not spoken to him once since then.
I note this fact more to exemplify than to inform.
The day I submit my final invoice will be
St Dogmael’s Day. God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders, as much as His blunders, to perform.

In the 18th century, a Jesuit missionary
From Bohemia lived among the Guaraní
In Paraguay. Seeking out the cacique of one tribe,
He was told: We have no need for you, priest:
Paí Thome Marangatu walked on our homeland himself
Carrying a wooden cross from place to place;
He taught us of the Truth, and prayed for us
In the name of the saviour, Jesus Christ.

 

VI. Martlesham Heath, 21 May

When will the kingdom come? When will the kingdom come?
The kingdom is spread out upon the earth. You do not see.
I’m going farther East in England than I’ve ever been.
The other people on the train don’t seem to care
Or seem to notice at all that we have jumped
Dimensions and are entering a sun-drenched impression
Of what the East might mean in my mind when
A weather map or a history book cites a reference.
Ipswich is oddly like Bangor, and unlike Ipswich;
As if my mind has run out of new ingredients:
Like it had to be constructed from the places
I’ve already been; like every place I go now –
Now I’ve resigned myself to the probability
That I’m unlikely ever to travel beyond
Eastern, or rather Central, Europe,
Or maybe North America once or twice more,
Because of various reasons: like money, age,
The climate emergency, not wanting to
Subject my children to unnecessary hazards,
And loving where I live too much to leave for long –
This is those places already visited and catalogued,
Disassembled and reassembled: these towerblocks,
This church, this railway track, this river,
These Georgian terraces, that flyover,
This high street, this monument, this charity shop…
I buy a Gerard Manley Hopkins book
And some Hilaire Belloc cautionary verse
Because the price of the Auden in Waterstones
Was much more than any dead man needs or deserves.
And neither best-of had The Two or The Witnesses,
So I keep re-reading it on my phone,
Neglecting the books I bought: I soon saw
That although the music and rhythm of Hopkins
Display true mastery, the substance does nothing for me.
The bus to the Heath takes a week, all round the Wrekin,
Or rather Kesgrave; and I cannot but sweat in the sun.
When will the kingdom come? When will the kingdom come?
The kingdom is spread out upon the earth. You do not see.

Walking the side-streets of East Anglia, these days,
I estimate that the country is 52%
Old men spraying pavement edges with Roundup.
This is not the kingdom. This is not the kingdom.
I am dropped like a twenty-pence teddy by a claw
In Tesco carpark, and must navigate my way
Across roads and roundabouts unforgiving
To pedestrians: all this was planned by human hands
For wheels: four wheels good; two wheels bad.
Legs? A heresy. The vicar does not like to look up
And see stained glass windows depicting the bombers,
Hurricanes, Spitfires, Typhoons, etc.
That occupied this space before the church,
The houses, the cafe, the hairdressers’,
The kingdom; but if this is not not the kingdom
Then then was it not not not the kingdom?
I do not ask. It’s not my job to ask. Not to ask that.
I ask about the way the internet has helped
Blur the boundary between church and community;
With mission and security, and funding,
Flexibility. I have a checklist – the same checklist
I’ve had for every interview, though I write it out
Anew, afresh, each time, and I’m not sure why yet.
I forget to ask his favourite colour. At the bus stop,
Packing my camera microphone away, I ask the clouds,
Lord, we know not whither thou goest; how can we know the way?
Let’s also go, that we may die with him, they seem to say.

I must cease now from my exploration
For St Dogmael’s Day is ever nearing,
And with it my nearest, latest, destination.
And the end of all my contracted exploring
As prophesied by the Super Offpeak open-return,
My suitcase full of crumpled underwear and shirts,
And the stack of receipts that fattens my wallet,
Will be a katsu curry at Paddington Station,
A mad dash for the nineteen-fifteen Great Western
Which I’m always early for, and which is usually late,
An accidentally purchased passion-fruit IPA,
A packet of disappointing crisps, an energy drink,
A nut-free chocolate bar, a half-full bottle of water,
And some Times-bestselling geopolitical tome
Which will keep me company on my lumbering journey
In search of the half-remembered notion of home;
And no knowing any more where I am going
Than knowing where I was going has gone,
And no key to a kingdom of many,
And no anthem for a nation of one.

 

Appears in:
My most serene republic [?]

Notes:
Written while travelling England for work in spring, 2019, this poem incorporates quotations and paraphrases from various Christian texts, mostly the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.

Delicious poison

Delicious poison

For what’s existence but a burden to be borne?
A task that the servants are ordered to perform
While the master is away, off-stage, unseen,
Entrusting to our senses shared reality:
A big black sticky lump that looks good to eat;
Life is the delicious poison that you let it be –

And what’s oblivion but the warming hearth of home?
A condition in which no one can be alone,
Nor influence the interaction between
Their matter and the matters of their kinsfolkmote,
Nor indeed replace their own bonemealy meat;
Whatever your poison, death is its bland antidote.

Appears in:
The misery tune [2018]

Notes:
Although I had the idea for the poem when I thought of the title, after Googling it I found a Japanese Kyōgen play with the same name, which the subsequent reading of then infiltrated the poem.

Video:

George Monbiot’s agricultural policy

George Monbiot’s agricultural policy

Nobody expected them to thrive so well.
Life expectancy has plummeted.
The languorous, cruel kiss of cancer
Is a luxury that’s lost to most these days.
As for curing it: why bother?

The roads are not safe;
They’ll see you coming a mile off
And run you down on the hot concrete.
You’ll be bones before sundown.
Cities too have become their home;

Their calls echo down desolate streets.
Tendrils caress cracked tower blocks
And islands of rubble sprout saplings.
It all looks cleaner somehow,
But everything’s heavy with their stink.

The elephants barely lasted a month.
Why would they? They’d no idea what to do.
They’ve not been here for millennia.
You come across a skull now and then
But it’s best not to get too close.

Even the chemicals couldn’t kill them.
Even the missiles they strafed the hills with
Did nothing but make them bigger
And angrier. If they can’t find people
They devour each other. That concentrates them.

But the air is clearer to breathe, I think.
Forests sprouted almost overnight, as if
Unimpressed by our centuries’ efforts.
The sun seems brighter now too, and the stars –
Ah, the stars! We try to avoid the moon.

I saw George in what was Aberaeron last week,
Raiding a bookshop, of all places, for supplies.
We smeared each other with bear faeces
And hunkered behind the counter while they passed.
“It’s hard to measure happiness,” he said.

Appears in:
In the Men’s Room [2018]

Video:

Memento mori

Memento mori

I
Remember
You
Remember
Me:
Memento mori.

All that will come afterwards,
And all that came before me;
All I will lay claim to,
And all that will befall me:
I
Remember
You
Remember
Me.

All that I have been – and ever will be;
All that I have seen – and ever will see;
All that you have lent to me,
And all that all of it meant to me;
All that my existence means
To all the other meat-machines;
And all that matters to me.
You see through me.

I was born on a midsummer morn:
Naked, wailing, gory.
The skies were full of fiery shapes at my nativity;
And your destruction so deserves such creativity
That since that moment I have known
That you’ve been looking for me.
You never kept a secret well:
I know that you adore me,
Can’t wait till you have found me
And you’ve wrapped your arms around me:
Bound me, crowned me, drowned me.

I
Remember
You
Remember
I will die before I am ready
Like every body dies before it is ready:
Same comedy, same tragedy, same story.
I remember you remember me.

My grip on this cold reality is unsteady.
My bones have begun to ache from my weight already,
And I have yet to cover myself with glory.
There’s only one thing left to do:
Remember me,
And I’ll remember you.

Appears in:
The misery tune [2018]

Video:

Daddy

Daddy

after F. W. Harvey’s “Ducks”

i.

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.
ii.

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.
iii.

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.

Appears in:

In the Men’s Room [201?]

Video:

Project Gilgamesh

Project Gilgamesh

for FM-2030

Today the last to be allowed to die
Will say her words and give the nurse the nod.

She thinks she’s going to a better place;
Though we suspect, she hasn’t used the word.

What death is we now never hope to prove;
But pestilence and famine were just foils

To its brief mastery of humankind.
Now we are faced with many meaner trials:

What living is, we’ve none of us found out;
But now we’ve outlawed death we’ll have the chance

To design a destiny befitting
Of our race. And many centuries hence

We’ll still tell of how, once upon a time,
The last to be allowed to die were wrong

To upset our young unanimity;
To try to keep our siblinghood hamstrung.

Remember, our ancestors once looked up
Presuming they could pluck stars from the sky;

For far too long we’ve failed to question “How?”
And wasted far too many breaths on “Why?”

Appears in:

Live Canon poetry prize anthology [2017]
The misery tune [2018]

Notes:

This poem was originally titled “The last to die”, and appears as such in the Live Canon anthology, which it was included in after being longlisted in their competition of that year. It was changed due to its similarity to a new poem from the same volume called “The last”. The new title was taken from Project Gilgamesh, which I read about in Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens” several years after writing the poem.

The horror

The horror

for Alexander Narkiewicz

We two were born, entwined like vines,
To share dull destiny:
To quarry stone, crush copper ore,
Or trawl the Irish Sea.
We sprouted from the same soft seed,
Shared one radicle root;
From sleepy soil our common toil
Sprung double dicot shoot.

Two feet in one tight boot.

We gave thanks to earth and water,
The breath that lent us life,
And to the spark that cut the dark,
Whetting our hunting knife.
We drank deep from the wishing well,
Wore furs to fight the cold;
And all the while on the Honey Isle
We were never growing old,
Dear brother,
We were never growing old.

We’d trip through ferns as brambles snagged,
Pluck mushrooms from the ground,
And suckle blood from blackberries
Till Michaelmas came round.
The snow on the Carneddau range,
It never seemed to melt –
More moulted on March mornings mild
Its weary winter pelt.

We wondered how that felt.

And once the breeding season passed
We’d row out to Priestholm
To feast on puffin flesh and eggs
Amid the pink tide foam.
The sunset on the Menai Strait
Would gleam like cloth of gold;
And all the while on the Mother Isle
We were never growing old,
Dear brother,
We were never growing old.

We ranged the cliffs and wrecked the ships,
Swift-stirring eggshell broth.
We donned the skins of long-dead seals,
A rough and rusty cloth.
We slept beneath the firmament
On pillows of moist moss.
We measured midnight skies in sighs,
A glimmering grey gloss

For us to sail across.

In the deer park’s narrow quarry
We gathered ovine bones,
Up Flagstaff top we built with rocks
Our own great limestone thrones.
We wrote the rules and damned the fools
Who’d do as they were told.
And all the while on the Angle Isle
We were never growing old,
Dear brother,
We were never growing old.

Though there were only two of us
As far back as we knew,
I couldn’t help but think that I
Went further back than you;
You couldn’t help but think that you
Went further back than me,
So we fools fell to wrestling then
Beneath the brave yew tree

By Penmon Priory.

We fought fair well, we lasted long,
Until the evening’s shade
Caught your coat and I cut your throat
With our hot hunting blade.
My open mouth in your glass eyes
A horror to behold;
And all the while on the Darkling Isle
We were never growing old,
Dear brother,
We were never growing old.

I dragged you up the promontory
To the old flooded pit.
I rolled you from its grassy lip.
I wondered if you’d fit.
When you struck the still of the pool
The sound hung like a bell,
And though I moved to miles away
I couldn’t lose your smell,

And still I couldn’t tell.

I work now at that sorry spot:
The fish-farm in Dinmor.
I gut the fish. I pack the fish.
I wash the fish-farm floor.
The horror waits at complex gates:
Untellable, untold.
And all the while on the Lowing Isle
We were never growing old,
Dear brother,
We were never growing old.

Appears in:
The misery tune [2018]

Video:

Why I will no longer recognize gender—mine or yours

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:

 

An apology

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.