Before the age condemned such joint ablutions
you dip your hands in the tepid water
as the geese come in low across the lake
landing on their shadows, becoming their wake,
breaking apart the imago they seemed to chase.
So you break this tension, shattering your own reflections.
There is a complicity in getting clean together
who knows what distances you travelled in your sleep,
drawn back towards one another,
and the secrets that those distances will keep.
Each movement fluid and practised in the winter air,
you revel in this intimate act, not quite each other’s double.
You mime the mannerisms of others lives
like brother and sister; I mean, man and wife.


This is another poem from O’Riordan’s series ‘Home’ – see ‘Candle Moulds’ below. The subject is still a well-known item in Belgium, adding to the desirability of any property. This makes the first line stand out strangely to me – an interesting example of how every poem starts with its own preconceptions.

[Read in In the Flesh, published by Chatto Poetry.]


Praying, by Moniza Alvi

25 September 2014

Another poem from Moniza Alvi’s At the Time of Partition, directly following on from ‘Seeking’, below – providing an internal complement to that poem’s portrayal of external action.


She would build her house
out of prayer,

walk through the doorway
open the window of prayer,

the solid home, the five-times-a-day
blessed regularity of prayer.

Athar had been dropped, wrenched
outside time,

but not beyond Allah’s benevolence.

Allah, omnipotent, all-knowing and just –
surely He would listen, He would hear.


Allaahumma Salli ala Sayyidina Muhammadin…
O Allah, bless our Muhammad…

Sunrise. Noon. Mid-afternoon. Sunset. Nightfall.
Sunrise. Noon. Mid-afternoon. Sunset. Nightfall.

In the campl, the lifeline was prayer.


She made her duas – her intimate prayers,
prayer after prayer:

In the name of Allah,
the most merciful, most compassionate…

Allah, where is my son?
Have pity on my son

I bow to you humbly
I ask for protection for my son

Allah, my son is missing
He isn’t well – in his mind

[Read in At the Time of Partition, published by Bloodaxe Books.]

From the series ‘Home’, issuing from his residency at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere.


Pig fat, goose fat, tallow, they lie like corpses
in their narrow cots, fingers in a drowned
girl’s glove, or barrels full of pistol shot.
Their smut and smoke will paint the parlour black
but tonight they let her sew a little longer
let him pace his mind’s shoreline,
each thought a wave that breaks against
the shingle of type on the printed page
as night spills its ink across the vale
and the stars are wax spots on a hearthstone.
Tomorrow will bring rain, a hike in taxes,
rumours from the camps of defeated armies.
But tonight their flames speak of a frugal industry,
what light they made, what light there might yet be.

[Read in In the Flesh, published by Chatto Poetry.]

Another poem from Alasdair Paterson’s Brumaire and Later – see ‘Goose’ below for the context.


Out on their feet, the new recruits,
but they don’t want to sleep.
They’ll make a night of it, cajole
each other near that hideous border
they’ll some time need to cross alone.

The wine helps, maybe not the colour;
bitter salad’s plated up and meat
they sent for cooling in its juices.
They’ll have each other taste it all, roar
slogans and poor songs till lights out.

The border crossing into sleep tonight,
when they get there, will be a bridge
over a meander fat with bodies
that go bumping under, fifty, fifty one,
and so towards the watercress beds.

[Read in Brumaire and Later, published by Flarestack Poets.]

Seeking, by Moniza Alvi

17 September 2014

Another poem from Moniza Alvi’s At the Time of Partition – see ‘Must We Go?’ and ‘Stepping’ below. This one focuses on Athar, Alvi’s “father’s brother, / the young man with the damaged mind // who vanished / simply went missing” during the migration from India to Pakistan.


In God’s name, where was he?
Amma, can we go and look?


climbed ridges, trailed a foot
along a valley floor,
laid the flat of her hand on a plain.

Her mind’s eye was a torch
to beam through

the intricate darkness of a tailor’s workshop,

the hanging, reeking bloodiness of a butcher’s stall,

the forgotten corners of a woodcarver’s yard.

____She’d glimpse his face

from a great height,
from alongside, from underneath,

find him squatting
at the back of a textile factory.

In an instant, he’d be gone.


India was behind her
as if somehow she’d outpaced it.

She had to turn around to see it

or to watch it rise up
like a single mountain.

With a shake of her head she’d try
to clear a street,

sweep away the barriers
to seeing where he was.


Could anyone look as long and as hard as she did?

Not me with my writing eye,

not in any crush of a bazaar, or wayside inn,
cranny, cleft in a rock.

Not with any muscle of the imagination.


Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, the example of ‘seeking’ most often transmitted into my radio consciousness was Lisa Stansfield’s ‘All Around the World‘. Now, in an era of connectivity and public profiles of all sorts, the effort that Stansfield claims she’ll put into her global search seems remarkable. It’s possible to avoid somebody, but harder to disappear completely. Or so is the case for many of us. Events this week in the Mediterranean, just the latest in an ongoing series, give examples of disappearance when trying to get from one place to another. Alvi’s final line shows how hard it is to understand this sort of loss.

[Read in At the Time of Partition, published by Bloodaxe Books.]

How to Kill, by Keith Douglas

16 September 2014

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

[Written in Tunisia or Cairo, 1943. Read in The Complete Poems, published by Faber & Faber. Ripped from Poetry by Heart.]

(To S.S.)

My arms have mutinied against me — brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back’s been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a Stand-at-ease.
I can’t read. There: it’s no use. Take your book.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We said we’d hate to grow dead old. But now,
Not to live old seems awful: not to renew
My boyhood with my boys, and teach ’em hitting,
Shooting and hunting, — all the arts of hurting!
— Well, that’s what I learnt. That, and making money.
Your fifty years in store seem none too many;
But I’ve five minutes. God! For just two years
To help myself to this good air of yours!
One Spring! Is one too hard to spare? Too long?
Spring air would find its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.

* * * *

Yes, there’s the orderly. He’ll change the sheets
When I’m lugged out, oh, couldn’t I do that?
Here in this coffin of a bed, I’ve thought
I’d like to kneel and sweep his floors for ever, —
And ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
For I’d enjoy the dirt; who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust, —
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn?
Dear dust, — in rooms, on roads, on faces’ tan!
I’d love to be a sweep’s boy, black as Town;
Yes, or a muckman. Must I be his load?
A flea would do. If one chap wasn’t bloody,
Or went stone-cold, I’d find another body.

* * * *

Which I shan’t manage now. Unless it’s yours.
I shall stay in you, friend, for some few hours.
You’ll feel my heavy spirit chill your chest,
And climb your throat on sobs, until it’s chased
On sighs, and wiped from off your lips by wind.
I think on your rich breathing, brother, I’ll be weaned
To do without what blood remained me from my wound.


Owen wrote this poem in December 1917. The title comes from Tennyson, and the dedication is to Siegfried Sassoon, and later expanded it into the better-known  ‘A Terre (being the philosophy of many soldiers’. ‘A Terre’ is more fully developed in its theme, and even manages to have some fun – if that’s the right word – with Shelley:

“‘I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone’
Shelley would tell me. Shelley would be stunned:
The dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now.
‘Pushing up daisies’ is their creed, you know.”

I like this a lot, and also the point about the ‘buffers’ being mocked by schoolboys, but nevertheless alive to be so.  Both certainly have their virtues. But ‘Wild…’ retains a directness, its less polished transitions between images more jarring; beginning with the cry against the ‘mutiny’ of the arms rather than the deadening passivity of ‘Sit on the bed’ (so poignant in its way) gives more of the sense of the wildness of the title.

[Read in The War Poems, by Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy; published by Chatto & Windus. Ripped from poemhunter.]