Category Archives: Poetry

keep your shit straight

Currently reading, and finding assorted resonances within, Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical re-translation of Beowulf. I’ve seen (admittedly few) accusations that its linguistic choices, exemplified by the use—first line, first word, and throughout the piece thereafter—of “bro” as a parsing of the tricky-to-translate “hwæt”, are somehow gimmicky. It certainly marks it at a translation of its time, but I think that’s maybe not a bad thing, given any translation of such an old text is by necessity a thing of its time: might as well lampshade it, and see where it takes you.

“A ruler who’s been known as a good man since
days of old, a generous, just gift-giver, a war-wielding
homeland healer, is equipped to say the following:
this man’s as good a man as me. Beowulf, my boy!
You’ve proven yourself in every context. Your name
will be known around the world. You’re steady, strong,
and sure in all respects. I open my arms to you, as agreed,
and fulfill the bonds of friendship. For your people,
you’ll be, like me, a defender and a hero.
But… hold up, hear me out, indulge me a moment.
Heremod, that old king, was no hopeful hero to the heirs
of Ecgwela, the Honor-Scyldings. His rise was their fall.
He raged, cut down close comrades, aged advisers,
and when he died, he died galled and alone, friendless,
though famous. God had given him grace—granted him
wealth, health, and power. His road had no rocks on it.
He’d known only joy. Somehow though, his heart
was not a hawk but a drone. He bombed his own bases,
denied his Danes damages, kept entrenched in combat.
He commanded his kingdom’s collapse, and was, when ancient,
loathed when he could’ve been loved, his life lesioned
with losses. Listen to me, boy. Keep your shit straight.
I’ve been fostered by frost-seasons, fathered by time,
and I’m dropping knowledge now…”

lines 1700-23

And it makes it fun, easy to read. I vaguely recall starting and bouncing off the Heaney translation in the early Noughties, when I was trying to broaden my poetic base. That’s no discredit to Heaney, who had (I assume) a very different project in mind to Headley: the latter’s linguistic choices, much as they will date far faster than Heaney’s, nonetheless do the work of making what might otherwise seem like a worthy but dusty historical curiosity and making it timeless and relevant simultaneously. The words become transparent, letting the story and (crucially) the characters shine through—and that roster of characters very much includes the narrator, who is a creature of the milieu he is describing (and yes, he, because this is very much a male milieu, which is another thing the language choices make clear) even as he also carries the hindsight of the poet, of the tale-teller, which was (as I understand it) the closest thing in that era to being an arbiter of that which we now think of as history.

All that worthy bollocks aside, though, it’s just a breezy and entertaining read. Recommended.


The things you can’t control will go to shit.
So plan ahead, for caltrops in the road
await unwary drivers. Baggage stowed
as best you can, forget the tarmac, grit—
keep watching the horizon, far ahead
and still receding, still receding, still.
I make no guarantees; perhaps you will
see roadblocks that would tip you on your head,
and swerve in time. But here’s the thing: do not
fixate on swerving—that’s just detail, mire
to clog your wheels. Just gun the motor, fire
all cylinders, and get that engine hot!
Your friends and family will claim
you need a map, or maybe GPS;
ignore their poison! Good intentions pave
the road you drive upon. There is no shame
in crash-and-burn; fame’s how our futures bless
the bits of past they’re glad they couldn’t save.


[ Another sonnet rescued from the vaults, this one also written in late 2011. ]


Let’s make this clear: I do not want to die.
I don’t—I want to live, and live again
like I remember living as a child
in stories that I tell myself about
myself. To live that childlike life again—
not like the lonely dead, reduced
to mewling hunger past the fence of life—
I must then be reborn, and shoulder off
this chrysalis of pain and dirt
to fly, ephemeral and brief—
“you don’t get long!” cry damselflies—
to burn in speed and colour out across
that briefest gloried moment:
a meteor, a cricket ball, a sun.

To be reborn, then, I must die in part,
and so I split myself in two and choose
the one which will be Abel (brother, ghost)
to take the trip across the fence and back,
with knowledge as his hunger, for his prize.
He’ll whisper his learnings to Cain
whose knife becomes a hollow reed for Abel’s ink
so red upon the pages of the real;
the wisdom will make madness out of Cain,
a madness that transmutes him (once again)
through pain and self-inflicted guilt,
the loneliness of one who eats the truth,
who knows he’ll die—
who knows where all the bodies lie,
asleep, for now, but not forevermore.

No, not forever; Cain will bring them back
to life, as Abel’s ink dries red to black
on desert sand like parchment in the sun,
becoming glass, becoming purified,
his data stripped to bytes of bits, ideograms
afloat above uncanny whiteness, screaming through
that world of worlds we’ve built within the world
which still we do not understand in full,
though myth can guide our Abel through the dark:
in grubby paperbacks or cyberspace,
the maps are there—but don’t describe the place.

I split myself, like DNA unzipped,
still potent with the blueprint for the whole.
I kill myself, my brother, let him bleed.
I touch the blood, and whisper for the gods.


[ An old piece, circa 2011, recently unearthed from electronic archives; the accompanying notes say it was inspired by Margaret Attwood’s Negotiating With The Dead, and I have no reason to doubt them. ]

First There is an Island

Later this week I’ll be taking a trip down the country, and also down the years. On Sunday 12th June, I’ll be reading a poem in Sandown on the Isle of Wight.

I started off writing poetry seriously around 2004 or so, as a kind of preliminary to practicing the longer forms of writing that I wanted to do. I still write poems from time to time, but mostly only when they literally mug me on the street and force me to (like this one did). The resulting works may be brief, particularly since I got interested in the liberating constraints of classic forms like the sonnet, but they burn through a lot of creative bandwidth in a short time, like fireworks; my mind has been busy with longer things in recent years, and as such poetry has become something of a back-burner discipline, a skill gone somewhat to rust, like riding a bike down the promenade after years of driving long distances.

But you know what they say about riding a bike, right? I dragged myself out of retirement in response to an unexpected commission, one of the weird synchronicities that life throws up every once in a while. See, a few years back I got sent by New Scientist to review an exhibition at the Lowry and interview the artist, one Katie Paterson. I enjoyed the art and our conversation, and wrote it up the only way I knew how, through the lens of science fiction.

It turns out that Katie appreciated that particular perspective, and the resulting review. Around a year ago, she emailed me to ask if I’d write something to accompany one of the stops on the “tour” for an artwork to take place in 2019, titled First There is a Mountain. And of course I accepted, volunteering to take the Isle of Wight gig — because the Island is just across the water from that other island, Portsmouth, where I spent half my life, and where I started to learn to write.

Quite why I decided to write a poem, and why said poem ended up as the thing it is (the commission was almost comically open-ended regarding form and word-count, which was both a blessing and a curse) will have to be a story for another time, I think. But if you should be in the area, you can hear me doing the debut reading of the piece, entitled “The point of the work is the work”, at 11am on Sunday June 12th 2019, somewhere along Yaverland Road in Sandown, as part of the Hullabaloo festival of arts, science and seaside kitsch. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing some old friends while I’m there.

Opportunity cost

The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those lab rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.

A tiny (and, by comparison to the rest of it, fairly on-the-nose) slice from Patricia Lockwood’s extended-poem-essay-memoir-thing “The Communal Mind” at the London Review of Books — an astonishing piece of writing which somehow manages to capture not only the tumultuous sense of deindividuation that led to me bailing out of the birdsite, but also many of the reasons that having done so continues, years afterwards, to ache and itch like a botched self-amputation. Brilliant, disorienting writing for disoriented times. Do go and read it.