Category: The Needwood Poems

A collection of poems (of the ‘in progress’ variety) based on my boyhood in the Needwood Forest area of the English Midlands.

Inspired by, but in no sense the equal of, the work of the Regency poets Francis Noel Clarke Mundy, Anna Seward (the Swan of Lichfield) the Reverend Thomas Gisborne of Yoxall Lodge and the painter Joseph Wright, all Needwood folk and passionate defenders of the forest before its decimation following the Inclosure Acts of the same period.

A Child’s Vision of Cannock Chase

Quarrelling voices rise through floorboards
warped by age and shifting subsoil
muffled rearrangements
transmuting bedrock to deceitful quicksand.

Fever waxes humid and flickering sleep
conjures a scene in monochrome.
A stalking form flutters across the viewfinder.

Lurid headlines howl their outrage
at a little girl’s violation and murder.
She was my age.

A map is folded and, away on the Chase
a distance of miles foreshortened to a blink
opens again in a pinched, passed-over place
a copse at dusk; bark, knots and boles
straining imperfections, bend the grain
carve lungless screams in grotesque flourishes
twisted roots into a strangler’s remorseless grip.

In that febrile instant amplified to hours
the ego’s conviction is unquestioned
that I must be next.

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A Lark by Stoneyford

Close by the ford
down Longcroft Lane
from shouting meadow
he rises, dances skyward
to an invisible summit.

Black on azure
flickering atom
suspended on filament
cobweb-fine, drips peals
of tiny glass bells
pitch rising, falling
tumbling, a cascade
of summer song
formless yet formed
without verse
chorus
or middle eight
yet somehow knowable.

For an hour he sends
but never receives.

Coded intelligence
secrets for unseen ears
wordless bulletin
of Trinity rapture.

Brittle

That unstirring January morning
in Nicholl’s Covert
we found proof
of the night hunter’s
grisly work

blushing umbra
diluted crimson
circled unfolded wings
perfect symmetry
crucified, frozen
in snowbound flight.

Departed the strutting
crowing potentate
emerald, amber, scarlet
regalia now faded
to a cipher, caged
in brittle ossuary

his heart still
as a pebble
ours, quickened
by the implacable
the random
the savage

and the queasy
inner ferment
that our own
lustre may fade
in a single gasp
and our flight
be just as fleeting.

Barn

Forsaken now
stands this stronghold
against winter’s jolt
and summer cloudburst
seasoned by centuries
once humid with life
harbour for milk-breathed beast
hoard for the harvest.

Dank, airless within
lit in patches by beams
of drifting lint
picking out last year’s
buckled hay bales
and corrupted metal
a mildew reek
buffets the senses.

But pause a moment.
Draw breath.
Look closer.
This old frame hums
with a different essence.

The swallow
carves exultant arcs
banking, dipping
defying g-force
takes flies mid dive
carries them back
to the gaping mouths
colonising the soffit.

Follow the cracks
erratic fault lines
in the brickwork
to a dim recess
where fledgling starlings
demand nourishment
shredding the air
with electronic discord

and secluded behind
an ungoverned sprawl
of feral bindweed
waxing, multiplied
from a random
gust-blown seed
a sitting flycatcher
warms her stippled clutch.

Under dusk’s shawl
up there by the
redundant grain hoist
quiet, soft as a lisp
a barn owl ghosts home
from the hunt
with a vole, plucked
from life to give life.

But below the horizon
coiled for the attack
broods a menace
a relentless coming
of reclaimed timber
of glass, steel
and artificial light
an open plan Elysium.

Soon, some alpha nabob
will acquire, fumigate
straighten drunken gables
plug it into the world
of devices, and park sleek
wheeled missiles where once thistles
ragwort and groundsel thrived.

Lux Brumalis

I

I am the trumpet muted
the bow unrosined
and the fiddle unstrung.

I am oblique sunlight
pale illumination of
a world undernourished.

I am the broadcast interrupted
dead air, station leeching
anaemic, into station.

II

I am the garnet shock
of rosehip on frost
the robin’s titian flare.

I am the icebound babble
observed, not heard
under brittle silver.

I am the creeping metabolism
of the trout, wintering
deep below the current.

I am the heart-chilling scream
of the courted vixen
the crowing pheasant’s boast

the snipe’s ‘peep-peep’
defying, folding distance
across the whispering marsh.

I am the withered husk
on the naked briar
the sap retreating.

I am the fiery Saturnalia
the blacksmith spark, rising
then extinguished, spent.

I am the otherworld
beyond the black perimeter
of the sheltering blaze.

I am the chiselled gravestone
of the old year in repose
and the muttered obsequies.

I am Janus, churlish sentry
clinging to yesterday
wary of tomorrow.

II

I am the child unfathered
the page from a book
you read once, forgot

but must surely read again.

Solstice

I’m back at Ladysmith

and at its wilting zenith, the longest day
exiting Cancer, the doorway to Capricorn

halts

diffusing latitude, warping longitude
folds time, space and place
to a pillowed mass.

Pulsing air, nearer drug than bludgeon
sedates us with weighted persuasion
as we lie on a carpet of trampled grasses
while a palisade of stalks draws the eye
to a vaulted view, linear
but in no sense limited.

A lark transmits. We receive, constrained
by language, but alert to the possibilities.

For the longest instant
we inhabit the province
between the once was
and the soon to be.

The pond, hugged by bullrush and marigold
so close but a galaxy away, for now
is a cooling temptation to be resisted.

Gospel Oak

 

image

I

On a June day
, half a lifetime ago
a toddler, 
uncertain limbed
but chin set hard, 
trunk angled
against gravity, 
wobbled up Dark Lane
toward the crest 
of Roost Hill
in his urchin eyes, 
that day
the loftiest of summits.

At the top, he knew, 
the grown-ups
would point to the Oak, 
old as England
whose ancient roots delved
even to a time before time.

Crooked, crouched, 
the north face
bald
, withered antler branches
gale lashed, 
trunk lightning gashed
blind to brook
, covert and spinney
to meadow
 and wandering byway
in the valley below.

The south, animate still
a wisp of green
 recalling the vigour
now guarded fast
 in the heartwood’s memory
by rings of sap 
which awoke each March.

Gone now
 the exultant springtime surge
of the sapling time
, crawling now
inching upward to the sun.

The Oak; old Needwood-bred
coppiced by pagan, 
sequestered by monk
a holy plot for the living
to rest the dead awhile
and take sustenance
 at the mid-point
between deathbed and grave.

Undressed by yeoman
consecrated in Mundy’s lament
lone refugee 
from the encloser’s axe
and the lust for timber
of an empire beyond the sea.

The lad thought little of this
nor cared greatly.

To him, insight would dawn only
as his own vitality, by degrees, diminished
his errant dash for fortune slowed
and dimly remembered moments
anchors
, came back into focus.

II

Home from the world 
the man returns
his own boy, 
punching clouds
astride his shoulders
to the Gospel Oak
, abiding still
smaller, it seems
half erased
 from men’s knowledge
but steady, enduring.

Tears well unbidden
though he does not grieve 
for lost renown
but weeps at the stark, solitary beauty
and the still march through time
of history’s quiet sentinel
and marvels at his place beside it.

(Image: History and Antiquities of the Town and Neighbourhood of Uttoxeter | Francis Redfern | 1886)