The Real Moby-Dick

Wednesday, 2 September 2020 at 16:57

No Text

Things have been rather slow over the last few lockdown months. I got out to Spurn Head over the Bank Holiday and thought, following the recent Filey Brigg sequence, I should add some more coastal poems to the blog. Here is a sequence that first appeared in Drift, (Humber Mouth Festival, 2008). The project included an anthology and a short film, with poems by David Kennedy, Christopher Reid and David Wheatley. It was David Wheatley who pointed out that the only real whale in Moby-Dick was in stately house not far away, and took me to have a look at it. The sequence later also appeared in Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball Press, 2015). 

The Lord Paramount Looks Seawards

The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness may claim any cetacean washed up on the coast from Spurn Bight to Flamborough Head. In 1825 a beached sperm whale was taken to Burton Constable Hall, where its skeleton was displayed, inspiring passages in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In 2007, the reassembled skeleton was exhibited in the Great Hall of Burton Constable.“… in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale… Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities…” Moby-Dick.

1. A Cabinet of Curiosities

Rhino horn, coco-de-mer, shark jaws,
tailfins, swordfish swords, sawfish saws,
quadrants, astrolabes, a huge “book camera”,
manuscripts, microscopes, a Concave Mirror
all of Twenty-Four Inches in Diameter,
antiquities, dried reptiles, thermometers,
fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, the Claw
of a Great Lobster, a Tooth-brush from Mecca,
the Leg of an Elk two Foot two Inches long,
a large Sea-Tortoise from the Isle of Ascension,
fowling pieces, a carbine with an extending butt,
     perfectly balanced forty-bore hair
-triggered duelling pistols with silver escutcheon
     and the motto Ubi Libertas Ibi Patria.

2. Sir Clifford’s Whale

The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory
of Holderness looks down and oversees
these bones brought in by downstairs and scullery
staff from their long exile in lean-tos, sheds,
from their chilly diasporas in glasshouse and stable,
the outhouse earth into which they’d sunk. The head,
big as a Ford Transit, has been garaged under
tarpaulin for decades. But his Lordship’s vision
is more than just this fleshless resurrection
the sun shines through; it is the huge skeleton key
to reunite drifting land with inconstant sea.
His mind ponders how blubber has bubbled off:
how bones are bars detaining nowt; how flesh,
long on the run, winks through, fugitive as light.

3. Carnival

What’s suffered a sea-change here’s the coast itself;
turned inside out, all that is solid melts into air.
Even this thing now hugely spine and jaw
is an idea in thrall to the carnival
whose tides hold the whole of Holderness in its maw.
Forget the chance encounters of sewing-machines
and umbrellas on dissecting-tables, once more
Surrealism’s at the service of Revolution
and the elephant in this room, though not yet white,
is moving there from black. Trace its evolution
as the articulated folly of its bones
glides from sea through cetology, from a surgeon’s
prose to a Merman’s Leviathanic museum.
Misrule: now you see it, now it’s gone.

4. Pelagian

A rabblement of bones has breached the Hall;
something huge and hugely hurt has crawled
in from winter – its great wounded bawl
must have foghorned in another world – and died.
Left here, all we have’s this x-rayed sprawl.
Across the floorboards of this ancient pile,
a pile of pitted uncommon bones are spilled;
up there on pilastered walls, narwhal tusks
masquerade as unicorn horns, meanwhile
the portraits (Elizabethan, Jacobean,
in jousting armour, classically robed,
or a wild Victorian filly riding to hounds)
look down on a wrecked ossuary, smile
slyly at the carcass of this pelagic meal.

Behind Four Walls: corona virus anthology and interview

Friday, 10 July 2020 at 13:59

No Text

A poem of mine “Fade” will appear in Together Behind Four Walls,an anthology of poems and short stories in aid of Marie Curie Nurses. All the money raised by the book will go to the charity.

The loose subject of the book is poetry inspired by confinement and contains work by, among others, John Hegley, Roger Robinson, Wendy Cope and Peter Finch.

I was recently interviewed by the editor Francis Powell. You can get it here on Facebook: ttps://

If you are not on Facebook, the link to the actual interview is:

For further details of the anthology, including invitations for submissions:

Filey Brigg

Friday, 12 June 2020 at 14:10

Filey Brigg

Here’s a sequence I wrote at the time of the huge floods in Hull and along the Yorkshire coast and elsewhere in summer 2007. I’d been out walking with a group, led by the poet and archeologist Peter Didsbury, which brought together writers with naturalists and other experts on various aspects of the environment. During the walk the rain became very heavy, and continued for days. The sequence appeared in the Humber Writers’ collaboration Hide (2008) and later in Pilgrim Tongues (2015). Filey BriggField trip with voices.

1. Under the Cliffs

A tiny stunned green star: freshwater newt
washed out of the cliffs by rain.
“Saltwater shock – needs to rehydrate.”

Drop him in a bottle of store-bought still;
watch as that outstretched skydiver floats
the leg-long half-mile to our feet.

Later, we put back a tiny jade trinket
or a god, dead-still, in a rain-wet niche.

2.Soul Music

Catch wind-snatched boom-box:
spray flicks break across some
crossover flava-diva’s groove.
Keep your booty in neutral,
feet unsure to tap on the tumbled rocks
of what some say’s a Roman quay.

Dogs shake themselves free of sea.
Children taste the fishy fingers of the spray.
The elders stare out where water’s cut by light,
wait a beat, then one scatters ashes
as wind turns, bears off that track’s
slick power-build to its middle eight.

3. Brigg

End of the spit,
dogs, kids, rags of wet tissue:
outfall, shit.

End of chat.

4. Guillemot

What stops the chat
is someone spots that dead bird on a rock.
Then the beach is littered with “Guillemots,
razorbills, and that’s a little auk.”
Twenty, thirty, forty plump twists
of black and white along that stretch.

The naturalist squats to check:
“No broken necks … what you’d expect
if they’d been caught at sea,
ripped free by fishermen from their nets.”

He thumbs feathers back to skin for wounds,
below for shot. Nothing: it’s a mystery.
Photographs one or two in situ,
is on his mobile to the RSPB.

5. Roman Signal Station

Digging down, they found some bones,
but no larger animal skulls or feet,
which they take to mean the meat
was slaughtered elsewhere, carted here
to a garrison of single men.

Nothing else came to light,
except much later tiny bones of mice,
shrews, voles, compacted into pellets,
which must mean that while land and sea
swapped places and the Roman pier just sank,

there was nothing here but that tower
crumbling on the edge of the spit,
and, staring down from its walls through whole dark ages,
only (swoop, shadow, flit) owls, owls, owls.

6. Rain

What’s new and wet’s all still seeping in: drips,
drips, down to beach “…the oolithic shore.”
Pipefish, gutweed, velvet swimming crabs.
We have guys who know it all on hand:

the geologist talks sediment, striations, rock;
the naturalist gives us weed, nerve, feather;
the archaeologist mentions Romans, bones.
We point at stuff, get the low-down, get its names.

I’d like to know about the earth, the sea;
the names of things and how they live;
why the land I live in’s rumpled just so;
where and why the past keeps poking through.

That was the first day of the rains.
Next day, and the next, it kept it up,
worrying gutters, soffits, roof,
insinuating dark patches in ceiling, walls.

Monday morning, woke to floods.
Went out to work, got soaked.
Flooded basements, backed up sewers,
offices sealed off, the server down.

I’d meant to find out how – why –
those birds had fallen from the sky.
Never did, but, looking up, was struck
by just how dark the heavens had become.

The Spaceship

Monday, 1 June 2020 at 07:53

The Spaceship

I’ve just finished the painting I mentioned in a previous post. I wanted to contrast the concrete modernist structure and texture with its lakeside context. As I worked on it, the reflections became more shimmering abstract patterns. After Easter I could no longer return to the university, and as I worked from photographs and sketches, the painting became more of a composite, constructed from a series of observations over a couple of weeks in early spring.


Wednesday, 27 May 2020 at 18:37

Cyclist York University

The Corona virus lockdown has meant that I’ve been reflecting on work much more than getting on with it. Here is a painting  I started before Easter when I was visiting York University as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow two days a week. This view of Central Hall (also known as “the Spaceship”) had been languishing on my easel too long, and it seemed time to get back to it and piece something together.

A week or two back, I decided the building needed something and added the cyclist. It’s not quite finished yet. Over the last few days the reflections have become more abstract patterns, to contrast with the building itself, which retains some pencil mark construction points to echo an architectural plan.  


Wednesday, 27 May 2020 at 17:17

No Text

In the spirit of letting some old poems see the light again, here’s a piece that appeared in Trans, and also the excellent but long defunct Leviathan, edited by Michael Hulse. Michael was also the editor of The Warwick Review, which also bit the dust a while back. SnakesAnd these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark16.17-18.

Through the dusty garden, dusk
and the trickle of snakes: serpientes,
culebras, víboras, cascabels.
Each sloughed skin leaves a caged tab,
hardened to a pea in the tail’s husk.

Next morning, down by the well,
a tiny baby rattler, still dumb,
sunning himself: innocent,
curious, flicking a thumb’s
up – an AOK to the day.

Elsewhere, peeled-off stockings nailed to trees.


Bangkok snake-farm.
Lost up some klong,
a man, one-armed,
teases while another grips.
Venom spat into a perspex cup.
Accomplished blackmail smile,
the twitch of muscle under the shirt arm
that’s not pinned to his breast. 

Long ago, in the sudarium,
strigils scraping off the sweat
while a hypnotic queen
mesmerizes herself.
Noblesse oblige – the sting within
the basket of bidden fruit. 

In the Church of Jesus
With Signs Following,
the Lord has moved me
to take up rattlers,
copperheads, diamondbacks.

This thing accursed
above every beast,
condemned to go upon its belly,
eat the dust,
locked up tight
in my black ply box.

Downtown Babylon,
I saw a whore
poured like gasoline
into a flame-red dress.
She wore snakeskin shoes
and a silver necklace,
its snakeshead clasp
coiled at her breast.

Put me in mind of the evil life
I led before
I went to the river,
took my new name.

Now when the combo crashes into stride
and Jesus speaks like its true backbeat,
I walk to my smiling Saviour
in tough and polished hide.

Open up my case, unknot
the nest of vipers,
and with an open heart
dance and sing as the spirit moves
to shake my body,
echo on my tongue.
And hope and pray
my faith’s right good.

In darkened houses,
Irish and Spanish, Italian and Mexican,
I’ve seen that plaster Virgin;
out of the blue,
her sandalled foot
bruising the head that tapers
like a coffin.


They pour themselves
as if through a spout.
I dam their flow,
pin them with a hook,
grab close and tight
behind their head,
guide them to the darkness
of my burlap sack

Once in a while, I take a bite.
Goes with the territory, I guess.

They can’t hear, but they can feel.
If you’re afraid wear big boots.
Stamp on the path and they’ll slither away.
To get them out of holes
I lower in this vibrator
tied to string.

A bough from the tree,
the whisper of leaves branched into promise.
It hung, testing the breeze,
curled along the rough bark,
leaving an ivy caress hugged tight as poison,
as it dripped from itself,
gave stuck roots the slip.

So many words made flesh,
but this verb is sleekness incarnate,
sloughing what it outgrows in itself.
Slick with confidence, it licks the world’s lips
with the gloss of possibility.

Slithering the grass between the industrial busy-ness
of societies that are all arms and legs,
it has stripped itself of the banality of work or care.

Pure ego, shimmering I,
useless limbs lopped.
Slick torso, liquid stave,
erectile pillar of vanity
completing the circle of itself.

Skinned back,
what was secret as a glans
is now new mind,
sharp as peeled fruit,
a spiral of green skipping through the rope of itself,
wearing an inverted heart on its sleeve.

No News Day

Friday, 17 April 2020 at 19:26

No Text

Out of Eden

On 18 April 1930, the BBC’s news announcer had nothing to communicate. “There is no news,” was the script of the 20:45 news bulletin, before piano music was played for the rest of the 15-minute segment. The wireless service then returned to broadcasting from the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London, where the Wagner opera Parsifal was being performed. (BBC website)

I saw that apple still glowing in the tree,
the deadline (thank God!) at least was not today.
But sure as Hell, He’ll put it all down to me.
Once that fruit falls, it’s headlines all the way.

The brandished sword of God before them blazed…
Flood, Drought, Famine, Plague, the ceaseless Wars;
calendars, blood-lettered to the End of Days.

They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow…but, of course
once out there, they won’t be coming back;
from up on high they’ll wait each Solstice out,
tick off Millennia that dawn in vain,
peering anxiously at their falling sky
(the columns of their world held up by hacks).

No Rapture. No spaceship to beam them up. No news.
All History’s just a stuttering déjà-vu.
He sees their futures, yet swears He leaves them free:
The world was all before them, where to choose…

He drags that old defence out every time.
(Match of the Day: you watch but know the score.
It doesn’t mean you rigged the game.) I’m not so sure.

It will all come: hot metal, telegraph,
red-tops, rolling news, uncoiling spools, but first

that red bulb glows: studio silence. He eyes the dials,
flicks switches, slides the dimmers, checks tape-hiss, smiles.
He’s used to splicing rushes from when the Future starts.
Sits back, already waiting for what’s just about to break.

Through Eden took their solitary way…
He’s made this up so many times before:
the endless parallel worlds He tipped awry.
From wireless Eden, right through each family tree,
that thirst for knowledge will soon come down
to celebrity gossip, fake news, the racing tips.
That shining apple, always rotten to the core,
falls, and what’s really rolling now is all that world,

the one that’s just about to crash the pips.

No News anthology

Tuesday, 14 April 2020 at 17:45

No News anthology

On 18 April 1930, the BBC’s news announcer had nothing to communicate. “There is no news,” was the script of the 20:45 news bulletin, before piano music was played for the rest of the 15-minute segment.

The wireless service then returned to broadcasting from the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London, where the Wagner opera Parsifal was being performed.

To mark the 90th anniversary of that extraordinary utterance, 90 poets from around the world were invited to make a response. The editors Shane Strange (Australia), Alvin Pang (Singapore) and Paul Munden (UK) selectied 30 poets each. The anthology is published by Recent Work Press in Australia, and launched and distributed internationally.

Coronavirus has obviously meant the various launches scheduled for the 90th anniversary this Saturday 18 April won’t be able to go ahead. We had planned for a launch in York. Instead the No News anthology will be featured this week on The Arts Show with Mike Salter; Wednesday 15th April 2020, 7pm. Jorvik Radio. 94.8 FM. Jorvik There will be recordings of some of the poets reading their poems, maybe even me reading my contribution. Others have been filmed and are featured on the No News Facebook page.

For further details, and copies, please contact:

Recent Work Press




Saturday, 11 April 2020 at 20:0

2Graveyard, Sigisoara, Romania

“There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks […] to be studied by Antiquaries, who we were, and have new Names given us like many of the Mummies, are cold consolations unto the Students of perpetuity, even by everlasting Languages.”

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia or Urne Buriall, 1658

This seems a good time to be thinking about elegies. My mother died in 2011. I was in Romania at the time; coincidentally, that day I’d gone to a graveyard in Sighisoara I’d visited several years before. The graveyard served the German-speaking community and I wanted to check a quotation I thought I remembered from one of the tombstones. Sighisoara claims to be Count Dracula’s birthplace. When I arrived back in Borsec, the dilapidated Transylvanian village where I was staying on a writing residency, I heard about my mother’s death back in the UK.

Since then I’ve been working on and off on Elemental, a collection of poems,that starts with my mother’s death, and moves on to consider loss in a more general way. The collectiion plays variations on the sonnet, in tighter or looser ways, or, as here in the opening poem, echoing the form to build a longer sequence.


In Transylvania when I got that call
– had been that day to Sighisoara, drawn
to that famous undead batman’s place of birth.

Think: the Saxon cemetery high up the hill.
Carved gothically upon one stone, I’d seen
Ruhen in fremder Erde! Written it down.

Lie still in foreign soil – but you never can:
(stone blunts, moss overwrites your name)
the earth remains cold and strange.

As do you. Whoever you were, laid low
in the lie of the land, you are now (whatever now might mean)
your own remains – Just let the world, its weather,

drain right through your tongue, your ribs,
whatever stubbornly persists of you.


Up here, we are all overwritten with rain.
Names blunt. Down there, bones do too,
as they acquaint themselves with fault and aquifer,

maybe to discover they’ve finally found their level,
worked on darkly in the water table,
worn and wearing through those other scribbles

written in the water’s cursives,
its accommodations with gravity, geology,
the terrain’s almighty sloth. Post humus:

they’ve gone beyond mere ground. Now who could tell
just what is rain and what it is that comes to rest
at that watershed where land and weather shift?

Between headstones and puddles – what will you later find
in that shimmering absence where sun now burns off mist?


We’ve all been sieved by weather, land,
but now it seems one’s bones might pan
for flecks of something bright to stick

between the breastbone and the floating rib.
Count yourself lucky, can you, through the zero
of this ground? Be less than the gravedigger’s distant grunt?

Just something seeping, molecule by molecule,
ghost-borne through lime, past worm, through strange soil,
through walls tabled into water, a name glossed

across the mahogany of a dull séance. Grund.
Ground. And the mills of God grind exceeding small.
The old grind that did for you. (Now you’re hallowed,

hollowed out, just like the ground.) And that’ll do.
Will do for me what did for you. Will do for all.