Sentinel Poetry (Online) #60 ISSN 1479-425X

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December 2007  - 5th anniversary issue l Poetry

ANDY WILLOUGHBY

 

 

Necklace of Tongues (extracts)

                             

Prologue

 

Something there is here that wants you to sing…

 

On the outcrop we came upon him in a haunch-squat

In a Twocca’s hood and cap, black as any hang-mans,

Face shadow-swathed, peak slyly pointing out

the river estuary and remaining dock’s cranes

with their metal beaks blankly pecking at the eyes

of the north-east wind in its summer faint.

 

Suomi poets walked with me past half ripe bilberries

On a whiskey guided tour of “my important place”,

When he turned up to silence my tales of ‘blue billy’*:

The deaths by rockfall, for risible wage

In the hollowed sections far below these hills

All walled up now, full of mud and rain;

 

Or the ghost village past Nab Top on bleak Barnaby Moor,

Whose existence with home-made rugs, miners’ band

And smallpox taken children is proven by fewer and fewer

Foundation bricks scattered amongst the brown green stubble

Of last year’s arson scorched beds of purple heather

And in tales of the last pitmen babbling in old folk’s homes.

 

Even when we were kids this place was haunted landscape

Old buildings pulled down, half wrecked and forgotten

Swept by wind and snow into a whispering of blue faces

Lost in tall shafts where the dark spat rocks into space

And mashed the bones of the unlucky or unwary

And fed the deep earth with blood: the stone’s real price.

 

The steel that was smelted from the impure ore

Spread like a serpent across the globe in rails and bridges

In the name of Empire, frontier and red-coated war,

Cutting down the followers of non-christian gods

In weapons forged from our small mountains core,

Drained almost to the last in defence of these islands.

 

But public history, though well buried and hidden

And tales of past manglings and working class pride

Come tumbling easy in molten flow from my lips

As we pass round the bottle breathless at the ascent,

As Esa listens to me between DT stopping careful sips

Mournful eyes like Vainomoinen’s**seeking below surfaces

 

The other private times come hurting into mind,

Though I do not speak of candied lips in summer,

Old sketch pads and new horsehair brushes ,

Or aftermath of first time tumbling in long grass

And the first cold kiss of mortality’s intimations

As the other school kids below revised their maths.

 

I cannot untie my tongue to sing my own spirit’s low

Or our younger selves stained with ripe bilberries

The purple blotting out the desperate dole days below

Post industrial kids mouthing the fine impossibilities

Of “love” and “forever” not “economic exile” or “alone”

I chewed on unspoken and tantalising road dreams.

 

Last year’s apparitions help clear my mind

Memories of the mythical Eston Hills crocodile

Hidden in towering prehistoric ash sprung bracken

With dad and daughter as hunters close behind,

Where wild boys had laid waste to purple heather

In that springtime’s orgy of lighter fuel and swan vestas.

 

I tell Jenni and Henka through sun squinted eyes

Of the explorer fun we had here and the deer

That sprang out as we made boa constrictor pie,

And an old refrain plays in my beat box head here

Bob Marley in midsummer singing plaintively

Is this love, is this love that I’m feeling?

 

I tell Kalle of winter-times I came up here in despair,

Just before the hooded boy comes into line of vision,

One hundred yards from the old Martello tower’s ruins

How I always saw corvus corvus corone perched on

Jutting rock; a totem and gatekeeper of the ancient hills;

and knew him for more than a collector of carrion.

 

How I never knew whether he was daring me to fly

Or reminding me despite the blue cold in the bones

To be an outlaw and above all else to survive

As he sat on that grey ledge, black against the snow,

Though as we see the faceless boy I don’t tell them of

The voice croaking there’s some songs you should know

 

Or how, as his figure seems to disappear in a blink,

I’m not really joking when I say did you see the king?

As we walk in to a dip before the final summit,

On the rock, the black hooded twocca crow king?

Or the sudden blood knowledge that chills through me

Something there is here that wants you to sing…

 

* the iron miner’s nickname for the ironstone, dark blue in hue. 

 

** Vainomoinen – shaman hero of the Finnish “Kalavela” myth cycle

 

 

 

First Visitation of the Crow King

 

In the half waking hour of hangover headfuzz

He comes down from the bronze age hill fort

Marked by the stones of Martello towers ruin,

 

He comes not as the bawling yawp and flap of black

from roadside verges and childhood caravan parks

but as in the graceful glide of transformed ragamuffin

suspended above rocks and old chimney up-draughts

 

His hood is full and feathered,

his mouth is full of shadows,

his speech a weave of many voices,

 

all deceased.

 

And you may note his cloak that flaps into wings

with a sudden shoulder twitch or the hood moving

around his beaklike maw as though itself alive

with the shimmer of shiny dry black beetle backs.

 

And he will notice the half full notebooks,

tattered on your desk and demand your best lines

to roll around his multi voiced croak hole

 

As he tries them on for size muttering

something about the juiciness of the way

you made all his old tongues waggle.

 

And if you dare to ask him he may show you why

his cloak  moves and wriggles on his chest

as though full of dexterous unspeakable bug-life;

 

You want to sing poet of the secrets of my hills?

Try these on for size like a good boy at the dentist

open wide, feel the spirits dig inside like stone drills

 

And he will draw back the cloth for show and tell time

his necklace strung with tongues of many kinds

all moving, curling dead but supernaturally alive

 

And with every wiggle you’ll be singing-

a lost voice will fill your mind with its last tale

before his minions went collecting on black wings

 

Spirit tongues, saved before the flesh met the grave,

Whose story-keeper you have summoned, poet-fool.

 

 

VOICES OF THE DEAD:

 

1. Tin Can Candles

 

Even when my old

                            gadgie

                                       bones

could barely creak up

Ah stickwalked the same bugger

 

where for forty years boy and man

we headed to backbreaking work

before the day had even dawned- too early to eat,

though Johnny could stomach

a whole plate o’ greasy eggs,

me?-Ah was more bloody delicate in me belly,

Ah waited till dinner to refresh me tired legs

atop a rock way below

where rats stole every crumb

from yer jam butties in the break

from working the stone,

damp with sweat,

dry-throated down Egypt or Khartoum –

mentally tallying the pittance

from the tonnage of this living tomb

that still claimed its lives

though it wasn’t like coal

with its narrow squeezes and its dirty holes.

More like firing cannon blindfolded

in a dark cathedral!

When I came here at the last

to pray for the peace or pieces of Johnny’s soul

who saved me with a shove and a shout

from the twenty ton tumble that saw ‘im

scraped out of ‘ere on a shovel by midgelight

the old tin-can candles for the iron miner’s mass:

my brothers blood, not Christ’s,

Soaked this earth and all our class:

When the myriad crowds

flow over Sydney Harbour Bridge

they walk on his bones

They blow out his midge.

 

In the dusk walking down

to tell his nerve shattered wife,

I heard the crow cry and I wept

for being glad for my life.

 

 

SCRAPS

 

Hundreds of us ran up to Nab Top and Moor in the aftermath

of the fireball with the Spitfires victory-wheeling down the coast

a lone parachute drifted west where the captain broke his neck

in the twisted branches of an oak but being a German

he was not thought of as a man in the dark war days

with the world overrun by machines that spat out death

in a hail of fire and fury, in a storm of fire and metal.

A boy’s paradise when all dreams were of glory,

we ran for our tribute of military trophies,

from the mangled wreck of a Junkers 88,

In a race with defence officials and local coppers.

The Moor was ablaze and smouldering black patched,

hot steel scattered among blackened scraps

with the distinctive stench of aircraft fuel and pork,

the roast flesh of men freshly mutilated and cremated.

We dreamed of cap badges but we salvaged bits of metal

that the bobbies snatched back from our fatherless houses

but they couldn’t take back the smell that lingered

down the dark-woven patches of all our days.

That, and the crow cries that echoed over hill top

as we collected our bounty –

eyes bulging, breathless, desperate…

Just like this morning when I keeled over wheezing

with the tightened chest grip squeezing me till all

sound was those ragged voices from the outcrop,

drowning out distant echo’s of the screaming dead,

drowned out by the roar of exploding futures,

and these blazing scraps of memory.

 

 

TWOC

 

Listen man – we done it for the craic and on crack.

It was mint, ace, a laugh, better than smack!

Nicked the twat outside the offy where a daft bitch

had left the keys dangling in the ignition -

legged it sharp, took the beauty fucker scrambling,

somehow got it up the hills on a mudtrack,

Jacko says – it used to be a railroad

But what the hell does he know?

Come balling through the night well over a ton

when we saw the metal gate, probably soon enough

But Maca reckoned it would be pure brutal to ram it tough,

Like four James Bondses without the cool chicks,

Who will never be impressed

By the cracked angle of my neck,

Head dangling like a water balloon on a stick.

Before the flash and dark and smell of me own flesh,

the daft arse scared laughs of the legging-it lads

stumbling through face smacking branches,

panic-stricken dumb-fucks.

It was the toss of the dice which of us tossers survived,

And who bought it. Me, I’m not jammy in love or luck-

Just a bag o’ bones propped up in a burnt out metal frame

For the fuzz to find in the crow cries of the Northern dawn.

 

Feedback

 

 

Andy Willoughby


 


 

 


 

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