The Editor’s Spot

Autumn 2021

My new collection Sicilian Elephants will be published by Two Rivers Press on 21st November. Copies can be pre-ordered by following the link to the publisher’s website.

Sicilian elephants pdf full cover

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David Cooke: Four Poems from Sicilian Elephants

red kite 2 cropped

RED KITES

Plague birds, exquisite and focused,
who scavenged Shakepeare’s unspeakable
streets, they have drifted back
from the borderlands of extinction
on tense, splayed wings.

Circling soundlessly
in the rinsed clarity of spring light
they have staked their claim
to limitless acres above
the Chilterns’ wooded heights.

And was it months, or even a year,
my own dreams of flying
took possession of sleep,
making something of nothing
in gaps between the days ?

– My free falls and soaring
seeming purposeless, inspired,
until, ceasing, they left me earthbound,
trying to keep my eyes
on this twisting road.

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blue horses

FRANZ MARC : DER TURM DER BLAUEN PFERDE
for Patricia McCarthy

With so much implied in gleaming haunches
– their strength and movement, the sprung weight
of muscle – your eye forgets their flatness:
the image of an image abstracted
from a canvas lost and maybe destroyed.

A fine string of horses making their way
on tentative hooves, they descend the imagined
slope they mirror, reined in by contours.

Aloof or merely bemused, their gaze
roams a garish skyline as far as the neck’s
resistance allows, seeing through
and then beyond us to where
our own visions began
in a smoke-filled, flickering cave.

Bayonets, sabres, lances: somehow
they’ve galloped beyond them all
past explosions and mud-clogged wire.

When our noise subsides
and we have vanished, their acolytes
and masters, they will test the air again,
sensing only hushed syllables –
fetlock, withers, stirrup, girth …

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observers

THE OBSERVER’S SERIES

At nine years old, a clever clogs,
I started my set with a prize.
In the early heats of a quest
for the naturalist of the year
I’d dreamed up a killer question –
Do birds sing by instinct or learn?

Decades later I might have asked
if a poet is born or made …
But that day, on the podium,
a dignitary clasped my hand;
with a fixed smile he presented
my own Observer’s British Birds.

Pocket-sized, compendious, packed
with all of the facts you need,
I could feel it nestle snugly
into my open palm. A page
at a time, it named the species
with Latin tags and coloured prints.

When other volumes came along,
they added up to a library
perching quietly on their shelf:
minerals, trees, pond life, mammals –
the world reduced to habitats,
taxonomy’s abstract grid.

Today they’re still collectable,
the domain of crazed completists
who fork out top dollar for duds
in all extant editions: Sewing,
Golf and Silver; Basic Aircraft
Military, Basic Aircraft Civil.

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dwarf el;ephant

SICILIAN ELEPHANTS

As I try to interpret the evidence
of bones shrunk to a homelier scale,
I imagine their vast migrations.
Keeping in step with a pillar
of dust, they lumbered stoically
from one mirage to the next.

For how many more thousands
of years could hunger lead them on
across parched wilderness,
salt-scorched and scrawled
with thorny growth – a whisper
of water in the skirr of wings?

A sense of kinship their greatest
strength, each family group
was focused on who they were
and how to stick together, remembering
mornings that dampened briefly,
the nights when sun desisted.

There were generations
they had left behind – stripped
and whitened beneath rapacious
sky – while they plodded onwards
beyond the roar of tides
that cool but cannot slake you.

Slowly gradients altered
and the sea wiped their footprints
till they were corralled in a short-lived
paradise of sweet leaves, springs
and wholesome shade: their needs
unsustainable; their bulk a burden.

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Previous Selections in The Editor’s Spot:

Summer 2021Spring 2021Winter 2020 Autumn 2020Summer 2020Spring 2020Winter 2019Autumn 2019Summer 2019 Spring 2019

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Summer 2021

In this video you can hear me reading a selection of my poems as the special guest at Stanza 2 Open Mic 26th April 2021. My thanks to Kathleen McPhilemy for inviting me.

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Here is the text of the eight poems I read:

A WET BREAK

Outside in the street, where skies have opened,
a dingy curtain flaps across the day,
as rain beats down with blank persistence
on shining roofs of cars, dissolves
my windowpanes, bringing back to mind
for no apparent purpose a wet break
at primary school: how in partitioned rooms
with raggedy copies of Beano or Dandy,
we were fractious Bash Street Kids
with time enough to spare; and if an hour
seemed stuck forever in a non-event
of walls and rain, years have since
spun free, cruising blurred distances,
adjusted to the focus of each idle glance.

(From  A Slow Blues, Poems 1972-2012 THW)

THE DRESSER

The shrine and archive of those who had gone,
the dresser loomed imposingly, hogging
its space – their one attempt at opulence
in a room that was otherwise spartan.

Ranged above it, in a gap left beneath
the ceiling, there were portraits of couples
who had tied the knot elsewhere: brides and grooms
in cheap suits they’d wear again on Sundays.

Pushed to the back of a shelf – half-hidden
behind unsorted papers and the pots
for pins and pens – a girl in a white dress,
her image silver-framed, clutched her missal

in a gloved hand, staring back awkwardly
through jumble. A repository for anything
too highfalutin for everyday use,
it housed the china they laid out for guests –

the loaded Yanks, who were distant cousins
trying to find their ‘roots’, or English kids
whose accents wavered between two places;
their mums and dads who were sons and daughters.

Stashed away, alongside the cutlery,
the lace, and a stiff folded tablecloth,
there were biscuit tins that bulged with photos
in which the poses always seemed the same.

(From Slippage, Poems 2013-2018. THW)

COWS

From compartment windows
they were fake, too far away
to be real. Friesians, shorthorns,
angus: painted cows

in a book of fields –
while on the train I rampaged,
shuttling impatience
through pages and pages

of green. Unexpectedly,
we’d arrive and land in a world
where they moped.
The first day up, a drover,

I’d goad them on with a stick
then savour their warmth
at milking when packed
into pungent stalls,

where a white jet steamed
frothed up in a galvanized pail.
The fields outside
were full of their muck

in pats that were ringed
and perfect. Wherever
I ran, that muck
would cling to my shoes.

(From A Slow Blues, Poems 1972-2012. THW)

SHADOW BOXING

The closest my dad ever got to poetry
was when he savoured some word
like pugilist, or the tip-toe springiness
he sensed in bob and weave,
his unalloyed delight in the flytings
and eyeball to eyeball hype
that went with big fight weigh-ins.

And maybe I should have been
a contender, when I did my stint
in the ring, my dad convinced
I had style and the stamp of a winner.
In the end I just got bored.
You had to have a killer’s instinct
to do much better than a draw.

In the gym the lights are low.
It’s after hours. I’m on my own.
The boards are rank with sweat
and stale endeavour. Shadow boxing
like the best of them, I will show
him feints, a classic stance,
trying always to keep up my guard.

(From A Slow Blues, Poems 1972-2012. THW)

LIVES OF THE SAINTS

God alone knows why our mum had bought them,
a set of five thumping tomes with green boards
and gilt titles. The cross embossed on each
was emblematic of a better place –
while she seemed happy enough with this one.

In her small bookcase they were dusty slabs
laid flat on the bottom shelf. Never read
or even opened on a rainy day,
they were crowded out by flimsier stuff:
Time and the Hour, These Lovers Fled Away

So when I was after a grown up book
this is where I started: The Dark Secret
of Josephine, Cousin Kate, Venetia
Their covers mainly soppy – carriages
and bonnets – too much flirting spoiled the plots.

No lovers’ games distracted Butler’s saints,
who knelt down and prayed serenely on rank
and clotted sand, or otherwise bided
their time, single-mindedly focused
on healing afflictions, saying their prayers.

Fulgentius, ‘shining one’, Chrysostom,
‘the golden-mouthed’, were not the names of souls
who yielded. Accepting the final cut,
Eulalia’s neck was like a fountain
from which, unabashed, a white dove fluttered.

(From Slippage, Poems 2013-2018. THW)

THE ARTIST’S BEDROOM

Any room you like can be a refuge –
with three closed walls and a window
through which you glimpse the world.
One by one the walls collapse,
extending your view towards both east
and west, but then revealing everything
you thought you’d left behind. The low
ceiling lifts into a sky so distant
you forget sometimes it’s there.

All that remains is a window
that you will slowly fill with bridges,
boats, faces, trees, some yellow, white
or purple flowers, the endless waves
of a cornfield above which a handful
of wind-tossed birds
seem to be holding their own.

(From Staring at a Hoopoe. Dempsey and Windle)

THE 2CV

The first car we owned was a 2CV
with no certifiable history.
The year we got together
we drove it to the end of its days.
With its tinny dinted roof
it had an air of slumped defeat
we rose above quite easily.

When summer broke all records
the windows that didn’t quite close
were an unexpected bonus.
Its mind-boggling gear stick
seemed set to leave its socket;
the functional dashboard
as neat as an early Avro’s.

Our one encounter with the law
– a strapped and booted gendarme –
required a shameless display
of fawning franglais.
A set of bulbs and a red triangle
raised its status to legal.

On days off our alpine ascents
were a puttering epic;
each free-falling return
a foot-to-the-floor held note
of whingeing metal.

It was sheer foolhardiness
I hear you say to make such journeys
in a such a bagnole and I of course
can see you are right –
as always, I can only agree.

(From Slippage, Poems 2013-2018. THW)

MAN ON A WIRE

When he looks back on his life
he will see that the best of it
was a journey he took from A to B
on a wire between two buildings –

his every breath a distillation
of what it meant to keep your nerve
and hold steady, each muscle
braced and quivering like the wire itself

which, at a distance, was no more
than a filament, but close up
was a hawser along which he took
illicit steps, knowing his future

weighed upon them and all things
were simple, once the choice was made,
however the pole teetered
or the air roared wildly

above a world of chairs
and carpets, dates and deliveries,
or the cops who stared amazed
at a man walking across the sky

whom later they cuffed
and cautioned apologetically
before asking him politely his name
and a few relevant details.

(From Staring at a Hoopoe. Dempsey and Windle)

Back to the top

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Spring 2021

The following four poems are taken from an as yet unpublished collection called The Metal Exchange.

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MARTIAL MUSIC

It’s always grounded in the two-four beat
of boot soles tramping across a field,
the plod of units across terrain
a general stakes his name on.

Holding the line, the kettle pounds
its rhythms of mutual fear. Embellished
with fifes, the snares are brash,
their prattle false as speeches
on recruitment day. Add some chimes
and majorettes, high stepping,
winsome, their hoopla
invigorates old dogs leering.

When, half-blind, Kutuzov squints
and Bonaparte can’t see for smoke
the squares their blues and reds
are on, a bugle squealing on the flank
proclaims which side has won.

A ram’s horn summons mountain tribes
once it’s time to lay aside
unseemly feuds, beset by greater storms.

In freedom’s name hoplites
trudge, singing solemn odes.

The pibroch wails its fierce lament,
a dirge for hopeless causes:
Hittites, Mayans, Jebusites,
their freakish pipes and drums
buried now in a ditch
with their tongues and palaces.

The self-righteous blare of brass
has toppled walls into dust.
Sweethearts and crooners
will give your boys an edge.

Subvert the enemy. Psych him out.
Symphonic morse transmits
the victor’s cryptic riff.

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Photograph supplied by Isabel Bermudez

ODE TO YELLOW

Let us rejoice in yellow:
its gleaming gold,
its haloes, its ordinary
virtues too –
the wholesome glow
of the lemons
you keep
in the usual bowl.

And when the sun
illuminates
a Van Gogh harvest
its brightness
seems complete.

The colour of hope
and safety,
it signals from afar.
Its buses trundle
homewards
when school
is done.
Its taxis negotiate
unfamiliar
streets.

In the land its river
floods and blesses,
it sanctions
wisdom, mirth
and balance.

The card it serves
admonishes
but keeps you
in the game.

Beyond its brilliance
there are times
you will see
its garish side
and the danger
it entails:
cadmium, chrome,
and arsenic –
pigments
you can’t breathe.

And once
its aspect sours
you will hear
how yellow screams
when Judas
smiles
in jaundiced robes
and torches
flicker.

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COGS

For too long unheeded, it’s time
to note their virtues: the way
they grip and take the strain;
their down-to-earth precision.

Gearing up doggedly, with only
occasional jolts and judders,
the odd involuntary moan,
they are truly fit for purpose,
when there’s work to do.

Tight-lipped and stubborn,
their staying power outlasts
newfangled knowingness,
your brittle take on a world
they alone sustain.

All they lack in intuition
is neither here nor there,
so long as wheels are turning
and bright contraptions sing.

What you have called
your bigger picture seems
to have passed them by.

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MINTED

However hard you may have laboured,
however smart your moves, you
won’t take your shekels with you
when a measly obol’s all you’ll need
to pay your passage back again
to where the slate is cleaned.

You have flipped a farthing, heads
or tails, then pitched and tossed
a handful of bright groats and shillings –
though Midas gags and envies you,
save some coppers just in case
for one last phone call.

You have laid down roads
and rule the world, your quislings
bow and scrape to you,
yet who will take you for a god
unless your face is stamped
on asses and sesterces?

The heavy metal that dinned
your ears, while you were coining it,
fades to more ethereal tones.
Declare the pennies on your eyes
that day you’re dispossessed

and the heart is weighed

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxagainst a feather

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Winter 2020

The following four poems are taken from Slippage, Poems 2013 – 2018, a new omnibus edition of three earlier collections: A Murmuration, After Hours and Reel to Reel.

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LE PETIT PARISIEN, 1952

A small boy running, but not for his life,
as all can see in his fearless smile
and the sense of freedom

that lights his eyes. This is the day
he will always remember,
important only because of an errand

and the small coin he didn’t drop,
holding it up on tiptoes
across the counter of a baker’s shop,

disregarding for once
the glass-fronted shelves of pastries
laid out on a lower level.

The still warm, unwieldy baguette
stowed beneath his arm,
he races homewards.

At his feet his shadow,
foreshortened, inscrutable,
can only just keep up, one step behind.

Shape-shifting, a demon,
it seems momentarily a cat –
its back hunched, its dark pelt bristling.

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CHEZ MAXE, JOINVILLE, 1947

With no finesse or finish, but still
a ladies’ man, his steps are those
of a country dance or a dance
implying country matters.
No rise and fall, no pull through,
his frame dissolves in swagger
as he takes in hand his two girls
who, less impressed than he imagines,
are riding the waves of riffs and wails,
the imported sounds of freedom,
in a public space where they embrace
la vie en rose and where so recently
their sisters were stripped,
cropped, and smeared.

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LE NU PROVENÇAL

She is like Eve in exile,
awakening each morning
when the sun has risen,
then rising herself,
shackled to the day’s routine.

She opens a shutter,
and the light sweeps in
across the uneven stone floor –
her summons to the tasks
that lie before her.

But first a strip-wash,
the astringent purity
of her ablutions. Leaning over
a basin, the chill water
unseals her eyes.

Still only half awake,
she takes in the tarnished
mirror, a chair; and sees how little
is needed to live
on the far side of paradise.

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THE LOVERS AT THE BASTILLE

By the time they have reached
their vantage point they know
for certain that this is the day,
fixed in their memory
as their image is fixed in mine.

Across the city’s foundering
skyline, its chaos of roofs,
they see how in wintry light
Notre Dame is holding out
like an island under siege.

For a few moments longer
they’ll stay, as one by one
beneath them shutters close
and the day’s work ceases
in shops and ateliers.

Groomed for the afternoon
he has spent with her, he leans
over and whispers something
he has maybe said before –
some foolishness or a vow.

All we see of her is her back
in a tailored suit, her stance
and its hint of purpose. Knowing
the world for what it is
she will seek her place in it.

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Autumn 2020

The following four poems are part of a sequence called ‘From Middlesbrough to Mosel’ which is dedicated to the memory of Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926).

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Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was, amongst many other things, a traveller, archaeologist, spy, and cartographer. Born into an industrial family in the North of England, she was one of the first women to be educated at Oxford University and was awarded the best history degree in her year. She later played a significant role in Middle Eastern politics because of the knowledge and contacts she had built up in the course of her travels across Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T.E. Lawrence, she helped support the Hashemite dynasties and played a major role in establishing the modern state of Iraq. During her lifetime, she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman of her time. She has been described as ‘one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection’.

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You can hear the poems being read here

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gertrude 3

‘THE BELL MAPS HAVE SHOWN THE WAY’

An accurate map denotes a journey
by a man or the woman who traced it.
Its panoramas circumscribed, its grid
locating features, it guides the steps of those
whose role it is to follow.

Her path at first was vague
from where she stood, and who
she was, towards whatever she might be,
the myth she represents.

Breaking bread with tribes,
she crossed conflicted sands.
She spoke their tongue
and understood what lay behind
their words. Surveying skies,
she measured miles.
She haggled for supplies.

And when their land became
their country, she was lionized.

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Gertrude 2 student

A BLUESTOCKING

Returning home with a first, cock-a-hoop
and cocky, her ‘Oxford ways’ perturbed
her family: how would they ever
find her a spouse? At Lady Margaret Hall
Miss Wordsworth had urged
to no avail the role of ‘Adam’s helpmate’.
Obsessed with ‘minor graces’,
she had laid claim to reading time
for penmanship and needlework,
or how to open doors discreetly –
lest her charges ruffle
clubbable gents who gawped,
any time her cohort sidled
into lecture halls.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxShe at least,
unconcerned, rose above their scorn
and that of the don who’d wondered:
What did the ladies make of that?
when his gist added nothing
to what she’d garnered from his book;
or of one whose facts were wrong:
I’m sorry, she’d said, I disagree.

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gertrude lawrence

THE DESERT QUEEN AND LAWRENCE

She addressed him as ‘dear boy’. He called her
‘Gerty’. Edwardian scholars abroad,
they had both discovered the Arab cause.
Careless of safety, they flouted the rules.

In self-imposed exile they had cut loose
the baggage of gender and class. Branded
a bastard, he was unlikely to rise.
She was a woman who knew her own mind.

Each had taken a first in history.
She had managed hers with a year to spare,
her papers ‘delightful’. He was inspired
by desert castles. She had helped on digs.

Until, by chance, nomadic lives began.
Her hat draped in a keffiyah, her skirt
divided, Gertude galloped like a man
in freedom and comfort across the dunes.

A smouldering figure in Bedouin
robes, the prototype for Valentino,
Lawrence appeared to the friends who knew him
undistracted by sexual urges.

He was flamboyant in skirmish and raid.
She homed in on detail. And when she planned
to meet a sheik, her camels were laden
with gifts, pearls and dresses, her canvas bath.

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Gertrude iraqi schoolgirls 4

IRAQI SCHOOLGIRLS, 1932

Beyond these walls there’s a place
where they are sisters and daughters
and soon, inshallah, virtuous
wives- and mothers-to-be.

Out there where modesty’s praised,
their future’s determined.
Their allurements buried
like a hoard, each bride-price

is settled. Being who they are
and where they come from,
each is a link in the chain
that holds the world together.

The same acquiescence
guarantees their quietness
in this studious room,
where peering eyes absorb

the shapes their fingers follow:
alif, baa, taa … Filling in
the vowels from memory,
they hear syllables murmuring

inside their heads.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxAnd who can say
what they’ll make of these things they learn –
their lives safe and circumscribed,
their lips scarcely moving?

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Summer 2020

This quarter I am posting four poems which I have written over the years about my mother, Noreen Cooke, who  passed away peacefully on 30th April 2020 at the age of eighty-six.

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i.m. Noreen Cooke (1933 -2020)

mum david

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THE LEAVING CERT

Mislaid for decades, I had never seen it
– the certificate they gave you the year
you finished school. Thirteen and biddable,
I doubt you had been much bother at all,
picking up quite easily the basics
prescribed for the life that lay before you.

Beyond the geography of small towns,
fields, and enigmatic hills, among which
your predecessors scratched out a living
or moved away, you’d followed the Master’s
travels, his pointer assertive on maps,
his ‘memories’ a well-intended ploy

when his horizons were limited too,
his learning shaky: a sprinkle of words
in a dying tongue, his high-sounding speech
and wisdom adding weight to his display –
though any time refinement failed, the strap
or a cuff would teach the clowns and dunces.

But there it is for all to see, the sum
of what you needed to know, entangled
in a script you never got the hang of.
A plodder in Irish, your English fine,
you’ve always been a reader: family
sagas, memoirs, whatever comes your way;

and learned enough doing sums to eke out
the pennies, those tougher days you had to.
Your sewing basic – good enough to patch
and mend – religion still sustains you,
making little fuss when those you’d nurtured
turned their backs and let it wither away.

Never admitting to brains, but smarter
by far than what’s suggested on that brief
resumé, what was the spur to frame it
– quiet pride? nostalgia? – when it turned up
again in a box heaving with papers,
clutter, your children’s own pleasing reports.

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butlers flat

LIVES OF THE SAINTS

God alone knows why our mum had bought them,
a set of five thumping tomes with green boards
and gilt titles. The cross embossed on each
was emblematic of a better place –
while she seemed happy enough with this one.

In her small bookcase they were dusty slabs
laid flat on the bottom shelf. Never read
or even opened on a rainy day,
they were crowded out by flimsier stuff:
Time and the Hour, These Lovers Fled Away

So when I was after a grown-up book
this is where I started: The Dark Secret
of Josephine, Cousin Kate, Venetia
Their covers mainly soppy – carriages
and bonnets – too much flirting spoiled the plots.

No lovers’ games distracted Butler’s saints,
who knelt down and prayed serenely on rank
and clotted sand, or otherwise bided
their time, single-mindedly focused
on healing afflictions, saying their prayers.

Fulgentius, ‘shining one’, Chrysostom,
‘the golden-mouthed’, were not the names of souls
who yielded. Accepting the final cut,
Eulalia’s neck was like a fountain
from which, unabashed, a white dove fluttered.

*****

coro

CORONATION STREET

When days were out of kilter
between the daylight and the dark
our mother set a limit: eight o’clock
and bed, a watershed marked
twice weekly by funereal brass
that wafted from that blabbing
street, its title sequence vanishing
into a Land of Nod beyond
terraced roofs.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx XTrailing upstairs
to functional bedrooms,
we mumbled slipshod prayers
before plunging,
breathless, into chilly sheets …

Late one night I am dreaming
voices: a woman still young,
who has her brood, and a man
who is buoyed by pub talk,
the craic, his cronies …
Her litany’s a wall
he won’t get past until like us
he’s learned patience has its limits.

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Johnsforth, Co. Mayo. c. 1959

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SONGS HE SANG HER

I imagine their whisperings along grey streets,
trying now to understand what their courtship
might have been. Even the word is a period piece,
upright and earnest, like a pledge of clear intent
that starts at temperance dances
where he buys a cordial which she accepts.

He is skinnier than I remember,
though his hair is the same: the unruly waves
brushed back off his high forehead;
his Pioneer pin a piety that won’t survive;
while she is so young. Then, as now,
all go and focused on living.

Marriage involves a letter from home,
parish boundaries, dealings with priests.
Holloway and Camden –
familiar haunts split by jurisdiction.

Then come years of thrift and children,
who will learn how their father
sang songs to their mother,
his favourite I’ll Walk Beside You,
loved for its melody and because it was true.

Note: The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart is an international organisation for Roman Catholic teetotalers that is based in Ireland.

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Spring 2020

This quarter I am posting four poems from my new collection Staring at a Hoopoe, copies of which can be purchased by following the link. The collection contains poems which, in their different ways, embody or illuminate Kierkegaard’s famous dictum: ‘Life is understood backwards but has to be lived forwards.’

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Four poems from Staring at a Hoopoe

MAN ON A WIRE

When he looks back on his life
he will see that the best of it
was a journey he took from A to B
on a wire between two buildings –

his every breath a distillation
of what it meant to keep your nerve
and hold steady, each muscle
braced and quivering like the wire itself

which, at a distance, was no more
than a filament, but close up
was a hawser along which he took
illicit steps, knowing his future

weighed upon them and all things
were simple, once the choice was made,
however the pole teetered
or the air roared wildly

above a world of chairs
and carpets, dates and deliveries,
or the cops who stared amazed
at a man walking across the sky

whom later they cuffed
and cautioned apologetically
before asking him politely his name
and a few relevant details.

*****

CAPTAIN WEBB

I remember his name and features
from my brief matchbox phase
that sparked up and fizzled out
like so many others. Phillumeny,
yes, that’s the word. Cutting out the labels,
I glued them to homemade charts.

When Bryant and May raised his profile
he couldn’t have been more famous,
if he had stared from banknotes.
On a cheap box of lucifers
– the white cliffs at his back –
his pose is muscular, relaxed.

In an age when maps were
splotched in red and folding stuff
did not accrue to any working man,
he seemed such a British hero,
the first one to swim the moat
that maintains la différence.

And sensing that achievement
ends up as commonplace
he moved on to stunts that paid
– like a man surprising you
by what he’ll do for bets – aware
that easy money soon evaporates.

Afloat in a tank for days on end,
watching clouds, did he see the future –
minor celebrities desperate
‘to give something back’ or even you
and I, greased up for charity,
ticking off our bucket list?

His style was never flashy.
Dour and dogged wins the race.
Burnt out and broke, his final plunge
was madness. Spat out by rapids
beneath Niagara Falls, his plot
in Oakwood is called ‘The Stranger’s Rest’.

*****

SOUL
for Grant Tarbard

Northern kids, their futures
predictable, they grafted dourly
five days a week down pits, in shops
and on the factory floor –
paying their way with some left
for vinyl, speed and threads.

Travelling miles by train each
weekend with a change of clothes
and a box of classic tracks
– minor hits and rarities
by blacks the charts ignored –
they kept the faith

and stormed the bouncers
– who lost their cool and didn’t get it –
once doors were opened
to another drenched all nighter
at Wigan Casino, the Highland Room,
the Golden Torch, the Wheel.

A four-four beat was all
they needed, rock steady,
relentless, and simple lyrics
that told the truth. Hallucogenics
and hopeless solos
warped the walls of bedsits

in never-never-land,
but lads in bags and polo shirts,
their girls in swirling skirts,
danced all night till morning.
Doing splits and fancy tricks,
they span around like dervishes.

*****

STARING AT A HOOPOE

ilare uccello calunniato
Eugenio Montale

Caught in the moment,
there is no way of knowing
who might have blinked first –
the old man or his visitant,
the bright, crested
ambivalent bird. A few
scattered objects
implying a workspace,
the room is otherwise
unfocused beyond
the reciprocal stare
of two survivors.
The eyes of one are stoical,
but lit by a sense
that all is not determined.
The other’s are steeled,
impenetrable – the maligned
harbinger of spring
or a bird whose piping
mnemonic call
is like a final summons.

*****

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Winter 2019

This quarter I am posting four poems from my collection After Hours which was published by Cultured Llama in 2017. Copies may be purchased by following the link. They all look at various aspects of childhood and education.

after hours cover

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David Cooke: Four Poems from After Hours

handwriting-672x365 smaller

MY GRANDSON WRITES HIS NAME
for Ziyad

The first letter he has known for months
in zig-zag lines getting nowhere.

Turned on its side and crayoned blue
he can stretch it out like a river;

or if he changes colour can make
a mountain, some grass, a fire.

Cut back to its simplest form
and laid out in rows like ghosts,

he follows the dots over and over
before he does it on his own.

When he learns its sound is a buzz
he likes, he hears it and sees it again

in the stripes of zebra,
in the bars of a place called zoo.

He has five shapes to master.
They stand above or hang below

a line that’s always there –
even if you think it’s vanished.

But when it all comes together
in a final downward stroke

– staunch and straight as he will be –
it tells him who he is,

this name he has always heard
ever since he’s been here.

*****

victorian classroom 3

SCHOLARS
‘The world divides into facts’
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

In the high-ceilinged rooms
of ragged schools you hear
the clack of chalk on slates.

Heads down, still breathing,
they are figuring out,
applying the rules

they hope will get it straight.
The first day they dip
their pens into tiny china wells

the mistress smiles
and tells them
to call this their ‘copy work’.

It is letters and words,
then sentences,
the bare bones of wisdom.

When the time has come
they will learn to think.
Meanwhile the neat

inherit the earth –
for if they smudge it
the page is spoiled.

Beyond high windows
the world exists.
It is made up of the facts

they are gathering one by one.
All day long they raise their hands,
owning up to their futures.

*****

elagabalus

FOR THE RECORD

Without so much as a thread of decency,
Antoninus Elagabalus, high priest
and mother’s boy, made biographers weep.
Proponents of discipline almost choked,
repeating the syllables of his name.

His sculpted head is unremarkable
and bears no trace of his supposed excesses;
the muddled genes of his outlandishness
those of a handsome kid who, like the best
and worst of us, will sometimes try it on.

In the fevered prose of his narration
Lampridius got stuck in with dismay
and the fervour of a red-top hack.
As he took prim steps along the gutter,
he lamented earlier days.

Trawling the city’s desolate quays
for the wayward and well-hung,
an inner circle supplied the emperor’s needs,
while he, disguised as Venus,
mooned enticingly on the street.

When thugs who had raised him
had enough, they cut him down as swiftly
in a dank latrine, then turned towards Severus
who, after certain recent events,
was always bound to shine the brighter.

*****

kaaba

PILGRIMS
for Ziyad, Tamim & Rafiq

When the day has come,
you will make a journey
to the city of Mecca.

Each of you a pilgrim
dressed in white,
you will cast the stones

that set you free
from Shaitán, the evil one.
Circling the Ka’aba

you will feel around you
the crowd surging
like a river in spate;

and though it’s a distance
I cannot travel,
the scallop shells

on my school badge
made me a pilgrim too
like those who had tramped

to the far-flung shrine
of Santiago
de Compostela

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*****

Autumn 2019

Inspired  by the autumn essay, Sam Illingworth’s  A Sonnet to Science, I have decided to post a set of poems taken from an unpublished collection of mine called The Metal Exchange. I hope in due course that it will be published as a book, but meanwhile here are four poems, all of which are inspired in various ways by science.

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Nuclear scientists

THE TRANSFERMIUM WARS*

There are certain structures
that fall apart when their logic’s
at its limit; and when what might be,
but can’t be, is dreamed up by those
who are bombastic, driven.

There are laws abhorred
by nature, regimes based on fear,
whose fates are pre-determined
when the brave say No
to dogma, tanks and swords.

And in the wake of Armageddon
our sensors glimpsed chimeras
that self-destruct in our world
but still engendered wars
between white-coated alchemists
laying claim to them:
meitnerium, hassium, hahnium,
rutherfordium, seaborgium
in nanograms invisible
to the unassisted eye.

Achieving more than Adam,
when they chose the names
for matter they’d created,
they howled like dogs prowling
around scattered bones.

Note: The title of this poem refers to a series of disputes between American and Soviet scientists as to who had first isolated and had the right to names the unstable elements beyond Fermium, #100 in the Periodic Table.

*****

Mendeleev

MENDELEYEV

How fitting  it was that a scientist,
taught by monks in a seminary,
should have been among the first
to see beyond appearances. Unkempt
and bearded, like a desert oracle,
he had sensed a scheme while dreaming
and, on awakening, had laid the elements out
like cards in a game of patience.

When others claimed he’d fixed it,
he turned on them and pointed out
the errors they’d accrued from impure
samples, their own inaccurate weights.

Rubbing their noses in it, he left
them gaps that he predicted
they could fill themselves
with substances unknown –
their properties determined,
their places reserved.

Foul-mouthed and foul-tempered,
he had stormed out of labs abroad
and sulked in isolation.
Back home in a backward land
he was lionized by students,
enthused by his asides. The Pied Piper
of insight, he impressed Kropotkin,
the crown prince of anarchists.

*****

magnesium

MAGNESIUM

‘The difficulty, then, is how far we are ourselves
the objects of our senses.’
David Hume:  A Treatise of Human Nature

Like a flimsy thread my vanity
clings to, it seems that as far
as logic’s concerned what I call
my self’s a phantom and no more
a part of me than skin, hair
or toenails are, shed by the strangers
they started out with.

So where is the screen memory
flares on and who’s the kid
sitting there, spellbound,
as JB in his goggles ignites
the bright metallic strip
he holds in tongs then dips
into the flickering Bunsen?

Of all those hours spent
behind stained benches
what else remains but a few facts
or party tricks, consigned
to the dark for years
until that moment sparks?
– lighting up once more

what I learned but never used
about the alkaline earths
or hyperactive alkali metals:
their symbols, numbers, properties,
and what it is they’re good for,
reacting flamboyantly
when exposed to water.

And then there’s music shared
with friends I’ll never meet again
that takes me back to school
as now, unaccountably, a teacher does
who prepped his board in break
and signed it: Do not efface! JB –
his aim with the chalk deadly.

*****

MERCURY
for Kevin Mulqueen

A numinous bead
slithering in a world
of angles, it seems
at first composed.
Probe more deeply
and you will see
it weeps elegant tears.
Collecting itself
into itself,
it adheres to laws
of tension, weight,
resistance.
Devoid of guile,
it has no time
for tawdriness,
displays; and
though you stare
for days, you cannot
see through it,
or amplify
its meaning:
I am what I am –
make of that
what you please.
Breathe it in,
or touch its skin
with your own
unguardedly,
you will learn
the price
indiscretion pays.

*****

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Summer 2019

Having been encouraged to do so by a few kind souls, I have decided to reserve one  small corner of The High Window for some of my own poems:

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This summer I am posting four poems taken from my fourth collection, A Murmuration, which was published in 2015 by Two Rivers Press at more or less the same time as A Slow Blues, New and Selected Poems, the first book published by The High Window Press. Copies of both can be purchased by following the links.

You can read an online review by Greg Freeman here.

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David Cooke: Four Poems from A Murmuration

CITIES

There’s another city inside the city. It lays
its template of odours across postal districts.

One day, perhaps, you will sense it
beneath your speed: a faint hint of fox piss

that clings to street lamps and bollards.
Leaving its marker, it establishes different laws.

Below our fences there are badger setts
and mole runs, scrabbling polities

obscured by codes, dissimulation, the plunge
of adits into the dark of the earth.

It’s 5 a.m. and a rackety slew of birdcalls
fills in a gap between late revels and the early shifts.

All day the city accumulates heat, hatching
prematurely the high rise predators.

In a colour supplement once I read
about Year Zero in a city called Phnomh Penh

and how the jungle broke it up
when all its people had marched away.

*****

FARO

We’re two hours’ flight from a northern spring;
the impassive sky we’ve left behind us
a canvas primed but still awaiting
some splash of inspiration;

the grey pavements underscoring
routines we cling to; but here
our touchdown lights a spark in a town
whose name suggests a beacon

and where all winter, unknown to us,
the orange trees on the Largo da Sé
ripened slowly, revealing now
a constellation of sweetness on a coast

whose warmth detains the storks
that headed once for Africa;
and as if plonked recklessly
on rooftops, ledges, hoardings,

their nests rise from platforms
of branches, twigs and rags,
growing bulkier year by year –
ancestral homes they sublet to sparrows.

But when we get too close, climbing
the bell tower, we find ourselves
in a perfect storm of beak
and wings like loose rigged sails.

*****

THE PHEASANT

A small time hustler, a princeling,
he is on the make and mooching
down along the hedgerows.

His head in the cloud
of each moment’s business,
the world is lying at his feet.

On a whim, his thoughts
a-scamper, he sets off
on a pointless dash

from one place  to another;
then remembers flight.
Climbing raucously

above the stubble,
his song’s in the key
of twisting metal.

And when the time is right
his sex is functional.
It’s all him, his pageantry –

for any drab will do.
Inheriting robes
from distant Asia

does he dream of lives
he’s bred for, or guess
how it will end

here at the roadside
– cast off by
a casual bumper,

his gauds in disarray,
his dark flesh ripening
beneath a perfect sky?

*****

A MURMURATION

Something is gathering
at the edge of the evening,

a shoaling of consciousness
as light fails,

each speck a singularity,
an occurrence of will,

as the living skein is formed
to twist and glimmer

like a burnt-out image
of the Northern Lights.

One by one,
they will come to roost

in a city of leaves,
a settlement of feathers.

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Spring 2019

Having been encouraged to do so by a few kind souls, I have decided to reserve one  small corner of The High Window for some of my own poems. This is particularly timely as my sixth collection, Reel to Reel, has just been published by Dempsey and Windle. I  will continue with further brief selections in each quarterly issue.

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David Cooke: Four Poems from Reel to Reel

GETTING IT TAPED

When I couldn’t keep up with the cost of music,
I found a solution: the second-hand
reel-to-reel I picked up at a snip –
a Philips most likely or maybe a Grundig,
some brand I thought would last.

Its clickety counter gave no insight
into the digital age. It couldn’t remember
or shuffle a thing. Pre-CD and pre-cassette,
it lacked a remote or any inkling
of the bells and whistles to come.

To make a start you wound the tape
onto the empty spool, then let it
run to take the slack. Engaging
its five sturdy controls
required decisive pressure.

And once you’d hooked it up to the radio,
you only had the space of a song
to change your mind and reset it,
ready for the next one, your dithering clunks
recorded in that seamless stream.

So I gave up on Pick of the Pops
and ‘Fluff’, its pop-picking deejay,
but left it purring quietly to the John Peel show,
his musical taste consistent,
his mumbles, yeah, laid back.

*****

A NEW SHIRT

In the Shangri-La of San Francisco
they called it The Summer of Love,

tuning in and dropping out
to a soundtrack of spacey guitars.

Bookish, shy, and too young
for a droopy moustache and sideburns,

I was hothoused instead by Hayes
for the maths I was taking early,

but got a hint of something else
in Scott Mckenzie’s anthem.

Against her better judgment,
my mother allowed me to pick a shirt.

– A bright yellow shocker
with a floppy, extravagant collar,

it didn’t survive the first lesson
before they sent me home

to dream on at the back of the bus
of topless Haight-Ashbury girls,

whose painted bodies sway
to airborne waves of music.

*****

FREEMAN STREET, GRIMSBY

Location! Location! Location! It’s a mantra
the upwardly mobile intone,
who have set up shop elsewhere –
catchpenny merchants with tricks up sleeves,
purveyors of pleasures and deals.

On a street where ripples of boom
and bust have long since subsided
beneath the tide of failure
the footfall of ‘three day millionaires’
kept all the rest in business.

Awaiting turns to land their catches,
trawlers rode at anchor, backed up
beyond the docks. Their crews staggering
ashore to re-establish land legs
lost them again in pubs

where men now washed up at forty
nurse disconsolate pints;
while workless youths hang out,
honing their skills with cues
in a room above the Scope shop.

Marks and Sparks pulled out, leaving
a space filled by Mad Harry’s
discount store that held its own for a while,
until it went the way
of Tony’s Textiles, the Polski Sklep.

Along this windy channel
nothing much survives beyond its lower
reaches, where Asda thrives like a final
outpost. There’s a place that fixes hoovers;
an Alpha course that fixes souls.

From time to time – like a twinge
of conscience – there’s talk
of schemes, regeneration: but who throws
good money after bad? Everything Must Go!
the sign says, when it’s already gone.

*****

LE PETIT JULIEN

He is pissing his life away
– this wayward child
with the face of a cherub,

his back tensed in an effort
to further his arc
of spangled water

toward the basin’s
rim, until one day
his trajectory rises

and recklessness
takes flight, his stream
trickling over

onto the pavement
and down along the gutter …
Meanwhile he’s the age

when all’s forgiven,
in spite of those
who’ve seen it before –

how once indulged
the child is ruined,
his features blank,

his eyes dilated, staring,
out of it, across the shambles
of each wasted day.

*****

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