Hold Your Breath

Hold your breath.
On the count of three, we went under.
The surface wobbling above us, we smiled with ballooned cheeks,
Bubbles rising out of our nostrils in rapid flurries
As we pedalled the water beneath us.

That’s what we did, all the time. When it came to eating, when it came to running,
When it came to lifting, cycling or jumping,
It became a contest to see
Who could be the stronger, faster, smarter sibling.
Whilst I gilded the title of Chess master,
You were crowned the champion of stuffing marshmallows in your mouth,
Both equal achievements in our friendly rivalry
That would go down in history.
Soon, the next medal was to be assigned as we slowly emptied ourselves with air
And filled ourselves with determination.

But history is warbled, trying to remember those times
Was trying to read through running water.
Looking back, I’m not sure what’s clay or pebble;
What’s been moulded by grief and growth
Or what’s carved in hard stone, the reality
Of who I was, who I am.

I came home in spring, twenty years later,
And made my way to the river.
The water lilies umbrellas for the gilt-head bream
Whilst the toads bathed in the sun.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the still, calm water,
Hoping you were still holding your breath,
And then suddenly, you’d resurface as the winner.

Trophy Thought

There’s a trophy thought, every now and then,
Which wakes me in my bed, brings me downstairs
In the dark.
Brailling my way to the desk,
Thumbing for the light switch,
Hunting for pen and paper mates,
I scrawl it down on the back of a Chinese take-away menu
Between the red bean dumplings and spring rolls meal deal starter combo.
My wife, she grunts when I exit the room,
She thinks I’m getting up to eat crisps or steal cake from the fridge,
To gulp the ginger beer, inhale the caramel flapjacks,
The left over mac and cheese,
All of the snacks
Without brushing my teeth.
Of course I am,
But I’m saving a thought before it flutters in sleep.

Surface Breaking

At 12:32pm, a kingfisher dives into the water,
It’s tiny wings taut tight into its small body.
It shatters the glass surface that mirrors the sky
And returns to the air, a wriggling stickleback in it’s gullet.

At 12:35pm, an old, darling lady scoops her soup
With a metal spoon and brings it to her mouth.
She runs the silver across the bottom of the bowl
In an attempt to recover the last, sunken crouton.

At 12:43pm, Arthur Allen drives his spade into the sand
Of Berrow beach. He puts his full, eight year-old weight
Onto the plastic handle to lift the load and it snaps,
Falling him onto his three tiered sandcastle.

Written in Black

If you asked me when I was thirteen what I thought of Mrs Pentelow,
I’d direct you to the boy’s bathroom. On the thin, plywood stalls,
Scrawled in black marker pen detailed the pubescent anthem
Of what we thought of our English teacher
Back then.

While Mother taught me manners, taught me outwards to inwards
With my cutlery
That never prepared me for the reign of fire
My teacher spouted upon my perfect piece of poetry.
How do I react to this?
“Thank you, that feels great. Thank you for your complete annihilation of my work.”
That near iambic rhyme was shredded and burnt alive
By her fiery poker Sauron eyes.
Her last morsel comment embedded beneath
Branded itself in my mind.
‘D minus, try harder.’

She pecked at the words I wrote, thoughts I carved,
Tore apart the letters and highlighted grammatical errors
In every sonnet,
In every rondeau,
In every ode.
Nothing was ever left on the bone white paper
Unmarked.
“Get rid of that, get rid of this.”

Kids were called veterans for passing her class. There were only a few –
Janice and Toby, who wrote brilliantly,
But I never got close to a winning grade.

Underneath the advertisement for a trampoline
And above the sales of local apartment property
With green doors and red bricks
Lay her tombstone in a black, 10 point typeface –
Dead at seventy-six.
Just eleven words, nothing else,
Letting us all know she had kicked the bucket.
No fluff, no clunk.

It was only then I knew what she meant.
Right then in her death,
To communicate and write
Without extra portions of metaphors or flabby text.
To be forward, true and honest
And to do this in every poem, every book, every day.
So, thank you
Mrs P,
I’m doing okay.

1980

You were Skywalker, I was Solo.
Dad’s leather jacket and Mum’s cream curtain robes.

You spun your painted blue cardboard tube
Over your head, added sound effects
Swish, voom, kssh and swoop.
You used the force to rustle up leaves
Whilst I blasted stormtroopers
And peppered pines trees,
Jumping from logs and over rushing streams,
Fighting off our imaginary enemies
Until dusk.

You hid your arm up your sleeve for the whole day
Keeping in character, as I did, too.
We both laughed when I tried to backflip.
Misplaced my foot, tumbled and tripped
And from it –
A bruise emerged on the side of my hip,
Black and round. I feared the telling of my parents
For the leather was torn and the fabric was ripped.
The pain went when you called it the Death Star,
One of your Jedi mind-tricks.

We’re too old for it now.
The jacket doesn’t fit, the curtains were binned,
And Mum and Dad wouldn’t allow it.

The Romantic Remedy

My morning starts with Tchaikovsky.
It oils the gears, readies the mind,
But it’s not just my writing spark
That’s ignited by the melody.

Introductions of soft, sunrise strings
Beckon pebble tenants
To claim the fallen scraps;
Crumbs for the young ones.

Two by two, through and through,
To strings and brass, violins and trumpets,
The dweller ants advance towards
My buttery breakfast crumpets.

The Literature Anteater

“The bulb has gone in the attic,” he said.
I imagined him sifting through old boxes
For old notes, for old books,
And suddenly being wrapped in cloudy, cold black.
He feels around him, finds his way back
To the ladder
And calls me.

He was a literature anteater. Poor vision, scrappy and quiet,
But with his bookworm tongue, he was able to find the smallest things
In rhymes and prose
That meant the most.
He could roll a quote from any author, from any poet, any philosopher
For any moment, for any person.
The smartest man I ever knew.

When he told me there was no light in the top of the house
I misunderstood.
I was half way out the door to leave for the hardware store
When he stopped me. He spoke slowly, softly, and then repeated himself.
I knew this was now not an errand request but instead, his best, poetic way
Of telling me that things weren’t all okay.
Darkness shrouded membrane.
Termites under milk wood.
He insisted there was nothing I could do
Yet told me not to worry – “There’s no prescription but there’s no pain.”

Henry Oak donated his books, his medievals, his reading light
To the local charity in the silence of midnight.
He left them outside in strong, plastic boxes so that in the morning,
Someone else could have the joy of reading them.

Better that than them collecting dust.
No wood for the burner, no cure for the rust.

The anteater has stopped eating.
The bulb has gone in the attic.

Coffee and Kerosene

I can’t help what inspires.
For the most part, it’s the usual old poets,
The budding new writers, the ancient great thinkers
And war hero fighters
Who help me form and shape my thoughts to words
With creative sticky-tape.

But, for the other part, it’s the absurd
When my writing is born and spurred in bacteria-sized moments
That are gone in an instant if not written when potent.
Like when I sat underneath the garden heaters
Outside the spring canteen
When the air was thick and warm
In tasteful coffee and kerosene.