A Storyteller’s Tale

A Storyteller’s Tale

Amabel Clarke is a very close friend and I’ve often heard her cycle the Hanrahan narratives of WB Yeats. Red Hanrahan as Yeats presents him is a sort of Celtic trickster-bard who scandalizes Ireland – not an easy thing to do in the good old days. Recently, under a starry night-sky by a blazing campfire I had the delicious experience of listening to Amabel tell a story from ancient China, the land of the ‘old boy’. (Amabel also tells ‘children’s stories’ if such a category exists, for we are all children at heart, isn’t that true?)

Wang Meng is a master-painter. Like Red Hanrahan he carries the trickster archetype, disruptive, restorative and armed with unfathomable secrets. We meet Wang in his old age when he is about to antagonize the Ming Emperor Taizu and… find himself wrongly jailed. Yet as the story wonderfully illustrates no-one can incarcerate the trickster for long, especially when he is a master painter who has solved the question of whether art should be concerned purely with art or objectively engaged with real politik etc etc. Master Wang had fused the inner and the outer realities into one hyperconscious state of being; and of course – without issuing any spoilers – I can reveal that from this fusion came the supernatural key which ultimately released him from prison.

The story and its telling so fascinated me that soon afterwards I wrote the following sonnet, which more references old Donegal than dynastic China, though – all things considered – it comes to the same thing.



Her listener glimpses in sinking flames
through smoke of woodfires, in embers
how some narrative proclaims
warm, everlasting Septembers.
A dying fire contradicts itself
with sparks of resurgent belief;
and the stars are considerate
reaffirming the preliterate.
Now she travels back-histories
the thousand curves of a night-lane
winding through old Donegal terrain
where on the skyline some hearer sees
huge crescent moons lying on their backs
pursing golden lips; from children’s books.

The Shamanic Universe

The Shamanic Universe

A French woman scientist has written a study of a grey parrot with whom she has been rationally interacting for twenty years. One can hold a detailed and elaborate conversation with this winged genius, he has a sense of humour and is numerate. On leaving the house he will offer a protracted and spontaneous goodbye; and ask you as an afterthought to kindly to pick up three packets of potato crisps at the supermarket. Apparently he has a strong sense of the past and the future.

In the following sonnet I pay homage to the architectural skills of swallows. Inquisitive scientists are investigating the mysteries of nest complexity, observing that birds exhibit intense behaviours comparable to human parental responses. And as poets look at the natural world with lateral thinking we realize that we are surrounded with fervid non-human intelligence.

Every time a rocket blasts through the upper atmosphere injecting dangerous chemicals into the stratosphere I remind myself that Robert Graves believed the NASA moon landing to have been the greatest blasphemy of the last two millennia. We are never alone in a shamanic universe.

Have you watched swallows nestbuilding
beaks overflowing with wet mud
to pack in the wooden scaffolding
cementing twigs with their lifeblood
when slow-prowling cats in the eaves
hunt the housebuilder who weaves
the fabric of her intricate home:
some miraculous inverted dome
worthy of Sir Christopher Wren.
I have seen flickers of indigo
flashing from blue wings aglow
where life takes form in an earthen
cradle shaped like a hemisphere
in the summertime of the year.

A sonnet for Napier Marten

A sonnet for Napier Marten

Here’s a poem for a special friend. Napier Marten is the founder of Mirthquake, a frontline site for the pooling of knowledge about cetaceans. Napier has long-standing links with the Mirning, a dispossessed group of ‘whale dreaming’ First Nation Australians; and also with Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a Zulu sangoma (traditional healer). Recently Napier showed a group of us a moving and beautiful documentary he shot in Viet Nam where fishermen have built coastal temples to whales for many centuries. Often containing entire cetacean skeletons these buildings are aesthetic and spiritual wonders bearing witness to a profound and suprarational kinship with whales based on reverence and trust. Shortly after watching this soon-to-be released film I wrote the following sonnet.

for N. M.

Gliding in density, weightless
flying just above the ocean floor
through a shoreless world, stateless
I’m the dominant whale of folklore.
I’ve pushed your ships free of the storm
made drowning sailormen transform
to unconsious dancers on my back.
I’m like that one in the zodiac
you call the Waterbearer
planing into a black abyss
hiding from human malice:
the altruistic standard-bearer.
My song three times circles the earth
with the sun’s Aquarian rebirth.

The Essence of Ambiguity

The Essence of Ambiguity

This sonnet is addressed to a sick Blakean rose. I had been looking into the mysterious subject of indole, that fecal essence which haunts the biosphere. In concentration indole has the most horrific fragrance but in homeopathic amounts it smells flowery and delightful (as in orange-blossom) and is in fact present in many of the world’s most carefully-blended perfumes. I think in this poem I was taking comfort – while in a distressed state of mind – telling myself that even the most exquisite expressions of floral nature have foul and fetid secrets hidden deep within them.

Wind-island hovering here
offering garden fragrances
to the incredulous air
do you know anxious glances
bittersweet jealousy
emotional leprosy
which eats away at the heart
tearing the strongest mind apart?
Have you seen storms on this scale
battering down sanity?
Are you fair without vanity
behind a beautiful pink veil?
And is this ambiguous indole
some crystal oil of your soul?

No Song – the video

No Song – the video

The Amazon Basin is in flames as Emperor Trump gracelessly fiddles, out of tune and out of time, out of sync with the zeitgest and the will of God. How long can such denial be maintained, how long can a madman’s head remain buried in burning sand?

Here is the video version of No Song which first appeared in Ecohustler: https://ecohustler.com/culture/no-song

The oxygen generator of the planet is going up in smoke; no one can sing without oxygen: that’s why it’s No Song time…

Special thanks to Claire Naylor for her beautiful and moving Hommage to George Frederic Watts.

An Armoured Inkwell

An Armoured Inkwell

One night from the bureau you took
a small metallic object, placed it, green
in the light of the standard lamp.

Strangely it sat on the dining-table
like an oversize matchbox made of steel.
Slowly you hinged back the armoured lid.

As if you opened a casket of sealed time
into the dark room came the Western Front
all that nightmare of what men did

When old Germany, the most civilized, died
when fairs on English Downs were pulled up
and trenches filled the French countryside

When Sacre prophesied the Great War
its dissonance the anger of the guns
its Chosen One a generation damned.

Out of that bombproof inkwell came poems
against the heroic values: Nie Wieder Krieg.
And for a faraway young bride

From black depths came love-letters penned
as dolphins turned, phosphorescent
in Flanders, at the mouth of the Yser.

‘My most precious possession’ you said
’yours now, since you’re a poet too.’
So came to me an armoured inkwell.

‘I shall not cease from mental fight.’
Often we chanted Blake’s mighty hymn
and I repeat it still by candlelight.


Written for The New English Ballet as part of the Armistice Centenary celebrations, the poem features in the film of a ballet called Remembrance, largely based on the wartime romance of Marie Rambert (my grandmother) and playwright Ashley Dukes (my grandfather). During his time as a cavalry officer in Normandy, he would use the inkwell (pictured above) to write letters to Rambert, who passed it on to me many years later.

Pin It on Pinterest