Alan’s poems have won several national and international prizes. These include, most recently, The Wilfred Owen Memorial Prize in 2014, presented at the Winchester Literature Festival by the eminent Northern Ireland poet Michael Longley; the 2003 Petra Kenney Prize, judged by former poet laureate Andrew Motion; the Plough Prize (judge, Ian Macmillan) in 2006 and the inaugural Wigtown Prize (judge, Don Paterson) in the same year.
(Wilfred Owen Memorial Prize 2014)
It’s said the old manor was tinder-dry that summer,
With heat holding the corners of the air
So hard above the overgrown parterre
And tangled banks, it skewed the view with simmering.
Through the long, prone afternoons the clicking
Of expanding pans and pails was heard.
The silence, through exhaustion, of the birds
Amplified the timbers’ death-watch ticking.
Down the long perspectives of the passages
High-born souls nursed half-remembered grievances,
Strained to scan the lie of old allegiances
Forged in the fierce madness of intermarriage. By the har-har, past the kitchen garden, A single pistol shot, the day destroyed.
Fired by some strange disaffected boy
Through the heart of the unsuspecting warden.
The echo cracked the ceiling of the sky,
Which set a-shiver the chambered air indoors And sent a draught down to the service corridors
Where restless household staff were standing by.
The Dowager, having dreamed herself to royalty,
Was authorising death-writs by the dozen,
Signing off some dim and distant cousins
Whose in-laws allegedly faltered in their loyalty.
Students of the subsequent disaster –
Themselves at odds through public vanity –
Unite in this belief; a vast insanity
Must have underlain such wanton slaughter.
Some pinned the blame on homo aristocratus,
That classy villain known for his receding
Chin worn down by centuries of inbreeding
To make him look deceptively innocuous.
This much is known; the building blazed and blazed
Until the walls were air and air was flame
And only the foundation shapes remained
As groundplan templates when successors raised
Their fresh construction. In the briefly binding Calm that came, the estate’s refurbished sky
Grew great with chastened migrant birds so high
You couldn’t see them dropping their fresh kindling.
The Engaging of Professionals
(Plough Prize 2006)
Right from our early, amateur rounds,
Back before we’d even drawn
Each other’s blood, let alone gone down And taken a count, even then we swung
Ourselves round this very ring
Like heavy bags set loose for slanging,
All uncultured shoulder shots,
Elbow half-blocked grazing knocks,
Eventually learning how to spot Some opening in the free-for-all,
Then haul up and release free-fall
The barely padded wrecking ball
Of us. As for the referee,
We took one look and saw that he
had recognised in you and me A pair who had no time for laws.
He ducked out through the ropes. The scores,
He said, were level, and what’s more,
Would always be. He left us to
The roar of ringside relatives who
Then bawled for me or bawled for you And flung the chairs about whenever
One of us was taking heavy
Blows, and winced to see the leathering
Of familiar faces. One
Well-meaning aunt declared the fun
Was over, time to cut and run. We told them to go hang themselves
And carried on so that the welts
And weals and bruises from the belts,
Which only we two had the skill, The dedication and the will
To trade, grew even greater till We’d lost each other’s eyes behind
The swollen brows which still confine
Them deep as love and twice as blind.
(Wigtown Prize 2006)
And so once again I’m in the ancient lift
That still succeeds in rising by force of habit
Here up the shaft in the heart of the mansion block.
Easy to think it had died in the intervening time
By lodging lethally in its throat of masonry,
Or else simply expired with the futility of failed missions
And all the later ascents into unachieved memories.
Because of the carpeting, always so fat with underuse,
And the solid, unhurried architecture,
The world beyond remains unaware of just
How loud the trellis splashes back
And falls into itself like a pile of metal mattresses,
Also just how great the gap can be
Between the button being pressed
And the clunk with which the cage begins its upward shunt.
In this gap, before the flux, on days like this,
With such a distance still to rise to you
And the deferred eternity of your kisses,
The universe breathes in and out a dozen times,
Expanding its boundaries, then vanishing in its core.
The current groans like a shocked heart
And down in the base of the well are gathering
The ghost-worms of Edwardian electricity.
Up it goes, slow mechanical mercury rising in its capillary.
A muffled call comes from a town church bell
And a sharper little chime from the first floor flat.
On the second a phone is ringing untended
In the empty import-export premises.
A dog is yapping through the ceiling, above which
The French tutor, Madame Gourcuff, is shouting at her lover,
Above which the widowed diplomat dictates his memoirs,
Above which above which above which
Until the storeys end and I am once again
Aware of the thinning air, the diminishing roofs,
The broadening view, the beginnings of fields,
The curvature of the horizon, the banging of my heart
At the bars of its free hanging cage.
THE OLD TUNES
(Petra Kenney Prize 2004)
I left the east coast waves stacked up behind
The running line of dunes.
My great, or triple-great grandfathers’ tunes
Came reaching and breaching into my mind.
The sea lay long and deep over the dead
Settlements and the spent high-water marks.
To the inland side of this shallow bank
Of sand and marram-grass the pathway led
Beside enormous fields, beneath the lark-
Hung sky – or were they just some humdrum shanks –
Towards the town. The air was high with heat,
The slack-pools on the warren
Floor and scrabbling plants gave out a foreign
Smell. The farms rehearsing for defeat
Were littered with the decomposing Fords
Of every generation, all the way
To 60s models with Farina fins,
Sans everything, and so completely gnawed
By rust and salty wind, their bodies lay
In flaky-thin and brown, untouchable skin,
And near them, in a scatter by the byre,
The differential gears
And teeth and body parts of earlier years,
Beyond all scavenging. Snagged on telephone wire
While rising on a sudden upward gust,
A piece of black and shining polythene
Was flapping like an outraged crow. Towards
The centre of the town the summer dust
Dispersed, a fairground shimmered on the Queens
Parade. The station’s destination board
Displayed a row of names that gradually lost
The endings of the right
Side of the map. The carriage, to my slight
Surprise, had filled with old boys from the coast
And round about, the greats and triple-greats,
With fiddle cases and melodeons,
And black-gapped mouths with pipe tobacco breath,
Hot suits of tweed in less than Sunday states.
The stud-holed belt that let the window down
Was like the ones that held them at the girth.
Back and back they went, beyond the time
I’d any thoughts about –
Not exactly carbons fainting out
But more a run of ever-loosening rhymes
So that the furthest one had hardly any
Echoes of the nearest; faces freed
By distance. Someone bowed a simple line
And in a blink his sound was one of many
As the rest surrounded him, the reeds,
The button-keyed accordion, the fine-
Tuned dulcimer, the pipe-and-tabor, all
Taking up the strain
And passing round the notes again, again
Until they wore it, sea-like, to a ball.
They played a Schottisch and a Waltz Vienna.
One of them, a father of mine for sure,
Could perfect-pitch his fretless mandolin.
Beyond this sound I heard a drop and then a
Drone of perished bellows, and once more
Could sense the early players’ presence in
The backroom of a period. The sound
Went dim, and as the land
Passed flatly by – the cuts, the levels and
The drains – and as the elongated mounds
Came up to meet the track or else flew out
Across the ground, they could have been the beds
Of severed lines, or earth-made river walls
Without much purpose in this almost drought,
Or causeways going where a trade road led,
Or Roman agger-banks, or else the small
Remaining strides of marching boundary dyke
For kingdoms lost below
The counties. Here the train began to slow
And climb into another country. Clouds like
Coals were gathering on a rim of hills.
The plain behind us silvered into dream.
A city simmered close. A fairground scene
Of railtracks in the sky was soon distilled
To chemical plant which piped and wound and steamed
As if that other state had never been.