Empress Victoria

Victoria, you were queen, empress, too.
That you ruled an empire, I did not want to be true.
I was a schoolboy, must have been fifteen.
My blazer black, and my collar, shirt and tie were clean.
My brain was held hard by one yellowed page
that told of your empire, how it was built, stage by stage.
Vast lands, like India and Africa,
your scarlet coated soldiers invaded, took over.
Repelled, I hated my history book.
My rib cage cold, the skin of my face red, I froze, shook.
The bell rang down the hall and corridor.
My face red with shame over dates of conquest and war.
Like one with the mark of Cain on his brow,
I felt guilt, remorse, as teacher said we could go now.
Out in the playground, I felt only pain,
thought of the time of bullet and sword, cannon and chain.
Victoria, it is not you I blame,
but the men who did dark deeds through your reign, in your name.
Your husband, Albert, was your concern,
and your children, watching them grow with new things to learn.
You turned pale, wore black in your widowhood.
As empress Victoria, more than grief you withstood.
Now statues left behind by your empire,
like those of the Caesars, stand stained by black smoke and fire.


The Land That Is And Yet Is Not

Welcome on board our barge,
feel it glide by its own will.
The canal is wide and long,
the water clear, deep and still.
Through the trees, now we spot,
towers old as Camelot.
As promised, we enter now
the land that is and yet is not.
Red deer graze on meadow grass,
a woman holds a shining glass.
When you were a child in your cot
you may have smiled to see
the land that is and yet is not.
Remember when you woke in winter
to find all the sky was snowing,
and you read the lines of Tennyson,
faint and far, you strained to hear
the horns of Elfland blowing,
and Alice led you through the looking glass,
Jack Rowland to what lay beyond
the clouded mountain mass.
Round the hill, almost there,
you may meet your true love at the fair.
Over the hills and faraway
lies the friendly inn
where when enchanted you can stay.
Relax, let the tale begin,
we float further in than Tam Lin.
Note how plants and trees
look more real than those seen before,
how the swans seem to be from another shore.
Distant horsemen ride to and fro
where you and I can never go.
The canvas is clean, the page has no blot,
we are now well within
the land that is and yet is not.


Old Walrus

With his whiskers and tusks,
the old walrus looks
like a general,
minus pipe and membership card
for a club for retired military men
who fought way back when
in the Napoleonic wars.
The tide inward draws,
hits the north ocean shores.
He keeps to his post
on the cold, rocky coast.
A wave slaps his face.
He frowns, blinks.
Thinks of raw fish.
In the water, he sinks.
How well he can swim,
like an athlete in trim.
His prey skidaddle away
in frantic shoals,
vanish in fern hidden holes.
Beneath the shadow of a whale,
free of gull shriek and gale,~
the walrus, bold and blunt,
continues his hunt.
Gorged on his fishy feast,
he flaps back up, a contented beast.
He slides to sit on the rocks,
free of keys and locks.
His mind holds memories
of cold coast lines and seas,
albatross eggs, penguin colonies.


Existential Crisis

What am I doing, standing in an airport,
wearing shades and eating a banana?
Does this mean I am about to suffer
another existential crisis?
Or is it a sign that I don’t care what I look like or where I am?
I prefer the latter, for the world is bad enough,
without having to suffer another existential crisis.

Why do I enter a junk food cafe to appease my hunger,
only to feel sweat tingle on my brow,
trickle down my arm pits, as I study what is on offer?
Does this mean I am about to suffer
another existential crisis?
Or is my body telling me I should say no to junk food?
I prefer the latter, for the world is bad enough,
without having to suffer another existential crisis.

What am I doing sitting on a bench by a marina,
watching swans and mallards on the water,
feeling glad I came without a bag of buns in my pocket,
for I have read you should not feed them bread,
too relaxed and empty to suffer another existential crisis,
I am glad to say. I must do this more often.

An existential crisis can drive you to the bottle,
or you could use it to write a novel,
abandon stale thoughts, shed old beliefs,
or just make you wish it was over,
pine for a life as simple as a field of buttercups and clover.
In a world ruled by hate, you fear the poisoned plate.
In a culture based on what is broken,
the sleeping dragon waits to be woken.

Maybe Franz Kafka suffered a permanent existential crisis
or maybe that is just the way he was.
Who are we to judge, except for the super sane,
a rare breed with a higher brain.
You can tell by someone’s tones,
if they are happy in their bones,
safe in their skin.
They don’t need to wake a third eye to look within.
Outwardly, a man may look like Saint Augustine,
but be Mephistopheles within.
You don’t have to look unholy to be caked inside with sin.



September sky through my kitchen window,
on my bird table a starling pecks a seed,
my newspaper on my lap,
no comfort in the greyness of the news I read.
I complete the code word on the puzzle page,
one solution spelled the word bezique.
My dictionary told me it was a card game.
Sounded strangely eastern, unique.
Few words sound as unique as bezique.

Paris in the nineteenth century,
back room of an inn,
round a table a group of gentlemen
play bezique, a popular game then.
Old man sits in a corner,
draws smoke from a thin white pipe,
content to be a watcher
until the drama fades,
keeps an eye on the knave of diamonds,
the queen of spades.
Seems like a minor scene in a novel,
the traveller takes note of on his way.
The reader has to turn the page,
so the moment cannot stay.
But the reader may remember how eastern, unique,
sounds the word bezique.

At times a poet lost faith in every word he wrote,
but he smiled to himself,
knew how to keep his spirit afloat.
He would invite some friends to his table,
to play a card game, now antique.
Win or lose, he loved to play bezique.

Christina Rossetti liked to play it
when Victoria sat on the throne.
Winston Churchill was an expert at it,
made him forget the metal vultures
that feasted on fallen flesh and bone.

In the museum of pastimes
are games now classed antique,
among them the card game bezique.
It will be there until the drama fades,
and there is no one to keep an eye on
the knave of diamonds, the queen of spades.
Few words are as unique as bezique.


Goddess Anahit

A flower plucked from the wayside,
a sign scratched on a stone,
among gifts laid by pilgrims
before her mountain throne.

Goddess Anahit they called her,
wise mother of water,
mystic source of peace and wisdom,
dark eyed, dark haired daughter.

Prayed she’d bless the seed in the soil,
the seed in the womb,
and that she would sustain the peace
from cradle to the tomb.

In Armenia her statue,
praised as a holy one,
stood tall in her sacred temple,
but her time has long gone.

British Museum in London,
that is her new address.
Displays the head of her statue,
a relic to impress.

When all the visitors have gone,
the curator alone,
admires the wisdom in her brow,
the beauty in her bone.

From the heaven of the high ones,
Anahit stepped down slow,
to see the head of her statue.
She knew the way to go.

The curator felt her presence
but could not see her face.
She loved the craft in her carving,
its sympathy and grace.

It was time to lock the last door,
hear the curator sigh.
The keys are cold in his pocket.
A star lifts to the sky.


A Mermaid’s Purse

A mermaid’s purse is the egg case of a sea creature,
most likely a skate or a ray.
What if the namer nailed it?
What if the said flotsam, washed up on the shore,
does resemble a purse crafted by a mermaid
from a segment of black wrack?
Follow the fancy to know the mermaid
fills her purse with pearls and shells,
a limpet framed mirror, a sea urchin shell comb,
souvenirs of deep dives and swims,
and her true treasure,
a portrait of her beloved she etched on a slate
with the point of a periwinkle.
Her purse she could tie to a seaweed strap
round her waist, open it when she rests on a rock,
far from the shores of an island,
gaze at its contents with a contented, reflective smile.
Meanwhile, ships and submarines,
manned by human intruders,
she avoids with skill and ease.


Museum Curator

Crystalline cobras coiled in a casket,
crafted to conceal a cosmic secret,
conjures the conundrum question,
who could unmask it?
The museum curator concluded,
it is not his task to ask it.
Silver keys in his pocket,
his duty to walk to a door,
at the right time, unlock it.
The giant black elk
that survived the Ice Age,
his favourite exhibit,
he liked to view it in its glass cage,
made him build mental mirrors
to picture the time
when such creatures roamed
the pre-historic stage.
The public were okay,
orderly, polite,
he told his wife when he got home,
no one broke in, nothing was stolen.
The day began dim, grey,
ended scarlet, golden.
Anglo-Saxon helmets, dinosaur skeletons,
Inca priest breast plates,
such relics he was paid to guard.
When asked if his job was easy,
he would tense his eyebrows,
say not really, but then, to exist itself is hard.


In the Ages of Faith

Was in the Ages of Faith,
hell and heaven were real,
kings and queens sat on their thrones,
to them you had to kneel.
It was then Giles was happy
to be a scribe in an abbey.
Scripture was his text to copy,
so his task to him was holy.
Birds and beasts,
real and imaginary,
he drew in the margins,
along with knights, ladies, peasants and ogres.
I doodle to relax, he confessed,
and to amuse me.
A flint lit a spark in the dark,
as he worked on the flood and the ark,
pleased when the colours began to glow
when he sketched in the rainbow,
then the dove with the olive leaf
that told him that though it was harsh
the tempest was brief.
Outside the walls of the abbey
lay a land of grass and tree.
Mist flowed in from the fen,
hills rolled like hymns in harmony
but that time that has gone
will not come again.
Swans swam on the pond
and what lay beyond
was hedged with hills and green woods,
and fields gave plenty of work for the ploughman,
and for wagons and carts unloading their goods.
The high walls of the abbey
will safely enclose me,
thought Giles, the most content of men,
I knew the silence would suit me.
But a time that has gone
will not come again.
Illuminated manuscripts,
contained in glass cases,
on display in museums,
the work of Giles and others like him,
preserved so we can see them,
though he and his fellows are forgotten.



Night-watchman I remember still.
I’d like to paint his portrait
but I don’t have the skill.
Why does his old, wrinkled face survive in a mirror
while others are forgotten,
like lost layers of leaves,
fallen to go rotten?

We were curious schoolboys
in blazers and short trousers,
stopped to see the night-watchman,
sat alone in a waste land
where they planned to build new houses.

Sat over a fire that burned in a bin,
he stared into the flames,
his coat blackened by smoke,
to really describe him I cannot begin.
Old age had etched long lines in his skin,
his expression seemed to say,
you’ve only lost if you don’t try to win.

To us it seemed odd that his job was real,
wondered why he had to keep guard
when there was nothing around him to steal,
just stacks of bricks and iron bars,
a few cement mixers and planks of wood.
Criminals would make more profit
stealing jewels and cars.

But he knew what he was in for
when he applied for the job,
keeping guard over things
we thought no one would want to rob.
But he had no boss to bother him,
no workmates to taunt him
or make his life more grim.

Like a freak in a tent in a travelling show,
sat in silent solitude,
he did not ask us our names or tell us to go.
Alone like Noah when he built the ark,
we left him there to keep vigil
through the black, empty dark.

When the moon slid out from behind a cloud,
did he look up at the stars,
spreading in multitudes, crowd beyond shining crowd?
Did he hear an owl hoot from a distant tree?
In the red flames he stared at,
what pictures from his past was he forced to see?
Did he fear a shadow that would leap a wall
to play shady games
with a chill in its call?

The building sit behind him, broken and bare.
He may have looked stranded on a raft,
but he chose to be there.
What was it like for him to watch through the night
till he screwed up his eyes
to face dawn’s dim light?

Like a lighthouse on a rock,
a beacon on a hill,
his presence was a comfort,
in a sense, he protects his neighbourhood still.
We stood and looked at him in the winter cold,
the lines in his face told us he was old,
that meant he had a long past.
Did he sit to slow down
what had flashed by too fast?

Did he play notes on a mouth organ
when there was no one around,
only a stray cat intruder
to hear the sad ballad sound?
As I attend to the night-watchman,
sat alone in a waste land,
I feel there’s something in that image
I cannot reach,
but it’s often beyond words
what this life tries to teach.

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