Poetry

POETRY

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.

THE MANOR

(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.

pastedGraphic.png

                  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.

           

THE LIFT

(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.