Keith Howden: Three Poems


Keith Howden was born near Burnley in 1932. He is married, with three children. After National Service and work as a laboratory assistant, he taught English and modern European fiction with a major interest in ‘the text as event’ at Nottingham Trent University. Among his many poetry pamphlets are Joe Anderson, Daft Jack’s Ideal Republics, Pauper Grave, Hanging Alice Nutter and Barlow Agonistes. He has published three full-length collections, Marches of Familiar Landscape (Peterloo 1978), Onkonkay (Peterloo (1984) and Jolly Roger (Smokestack 2012). Recently, with his son, the composer Matthew Howden, he has completed two poetry music collaborations, with accompanying discs: The Matter of Britain (PRE Rome 2009) and Barley Top (Redroom 2013). With Penniless Press he has also written the novels Self Dissolve, Naylor, Godsman, New Found Lands, Hornyhorse, and the poetry collections The Gospels of St Belgrano, Ship of Fools, Barlow Agonistes and Landscapes with Handless Man. His most recent publications are Selected Poems and Mapping the Moor. All are available at


Keith has also collaborated with his musician son Matthew Howden to produce the CD Barley Top which features Keith reading his poems against a musical backdrop composed by Matthew. You will find further details here and can listen to an excerpt by clicking on the link beside the first poem.




1. Joe Anderson (Listen here)

What witnesses? I call the ballock sun,
its banded light bounced from the canal fence
to testify. The randy cats sunning on
brown linoleum hold telling evidence.
Witnessing what? Joe Anderson among
his hunks of ripe and rotten meat to breed
maggots for fishing where, too long
confined, the particles explode
in iridescence, new bluebottles boom
and splinter in confusion at the light,
crowding the level sunshine of the room.
Do I subpoena witnesses to that?
Joe moved with a superb dexterity,
stalked bluebottles, cupping his hand
pelota-shape, to strike out suddenly
and hold them in his palm docile and stunned.
What witnesses? I call the willow-herb
raping the corrugated outhouse roof.
The cats at randy picnic in the yard,
if they had time, would offer certain proof.
Witnessing what? Dexterously he wound,
holding them unconscious and unbroken,
a hair about them. To the other end
he used to tie a small and banal slogan.
On summer days the layered air was hung
with his late captives and their droning weight.
Each hauled its trite but miracle drogue
through spaces of the still and even light.
Guinness is Good or Beer is Best was all
that he, Your Worship, managed in that sphere,
less sharp in mind than in that physical
talent he brought perfected from nowhere.
What witnesses? I call the ballock sun
to testify. I call the randy cats,
the raping willow-herb, Joe Anderson.
Dare I subpoena witnesses to that?
It was another climate and that sun
went black. The randy cats defected. Rusts
blighted the willow-herb. The bannered drone
of flies is hypothetical and wastes
in my mind’s prairies. Joe Anderson
cancered and died. The defence rests.

2. Spring Song

Wakening spring’s assault and psalter,
larks rang their bursting business of the fell,
plovers possessed a pulsing sun, the air
held singing distances for new growth’s swell.
It was that day, crest piled on crest,
nascent earth’s anthem for the spring,
with spearing tendrils of fine grass
and pent life driving, burgeoning.
The road, in the pulse of sun achieved
light’s asphalt distances and realms of air,
married a trumpet light, the nuptial wind
swung rituals in aisles of looping wire.
That fullness burgeoned to a bleak excess.
A black discordancy, a breaking,
waited to breach the sun’s largesse,
remap the contours of emergent spring.

3. Incident on the moor

Boys found, bird nesting on the April moor,
near where we lay, a hand-grenade.
Larks rose and fell. We heard the squeal of fear,
the dull explosion’s echo. Someone ‘Dead,’
was shouting on the ridge. And then, the men
returning with the body and the wastrel
soaring larks upthrust in spring’s momen-
tum, charred moor grass stinking in my nostril.
Above us, suddenly where we lay,
black larks cascaded, climbing broken air
in flights unconsummated over the boy
with blown-off hands. And then that other,
that demon boy, white-legged, long-shorted howled
along the ridge. Larks black as time, but older,
fiercer than spring’s explosion, held
his cry in scorn. Over the rim of the moor
we saw him lurch. ‘Dead,’ he was shouting.
Black-haired, he wore thick glasses and larks hung
black at his head, charred grass detonating
black at his feet. ‘Dead,’ he was shouting.

4. Love Song

It was that living day of the fell’s grace,
the burst moor’s celebration of the spring,
with spearing tendrils of fine grass,
a pent life nascent, burgeoning.
‘Tell me about Joe Anderson,’ she said.
I might have told the sun, its light
dancing in sibilants of acid
in half-litre beakers, the jewelled weight
of flies towing the miracle drogues
of Beer is Best and Guinness is Good.
I might have told the catalogues
of what she meant to me. I never did.
His hair was black, that demon boy. He wore
bottle-bottom glasses. Black larks hung
about his head and the charred moor
exploded at his feet. ‘Dead,’ he was shouting
I might have told the willow-herb’s decay.
‘Tell me about Joe Anderson,’ she said.
I might have told the cats, maybe imply
that I loved her. I never did.


Rufus, outlandish, platyrrhine swung
in a cage spanning a window bay,
a gymnast enclosed, performing
against a moorland spawning a grey
light clawing ravenous at the glass.
Lulled by a thermostat, supple limbs
played tropical against a foliage
of rushes and bare gritstone climbs.
Heretic heat one spidered night seduced
him to renegade. The moon’s allure
garbled lost creeds of luxury and urged
escape to the cobwebbed continent of moor.
We found him mummified to gargoyle
within an overhang of shale and grit.
The famished inquisition of the fell
put to the question. Prehensile death
fixed the exotic leafage of his myth
in shrivelled contours. Spiders on the slope
membraned him, webbed him apostate,
stilled the dissent of an infertile hope.


Fog thinly laminate on tarmac
broke at the car’s buffet. The owl
dropped out of darkness in heraldic
headlong, a raptor’s swoop to kill
its chrome reflection, a stuka strike
predatorial into the upthrust
belly of headlights. The famish beak
guided splayed talons through mist.
This was a death matadorial
in its short and ritual ferocity
and conflict of flesh and metal.
Only one bled. Above, a clean sky
diminished the whole affair.
Cold planets skidded a moonless vault.
Stars arched imperial to concur
such happenings as the universe’s fault
where predators collided in a friction
of competing energies. They were
mere accidents of light and misdirection
made treacherous by chrome’s mirror.
Machineries of flesh and metal’s innocence
had found their absolute in predatory
collision, the raptor’s necessary lance,
the pistons’ robotic anarchy.


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