Phil Williams is this month’s featured poet.
Born in South Wales in 1961, Phil emigrated with his family to Australia as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ as a small child, returning in 1966. He studied at Leeds University and lived in Yorkshire until moving to South Cheshire in 2007. He is married with two daughters and works freelance in marketing communications and market research.
Phil runs the bi-monthly Poems and Pints sessions at The Beartown Tap in Congleton. His poetry has appeared in national and regional publications.
Listen. That faint baying at the far edge
of your high moors. He is coming. Remember
how he harried you the last time you were
hopeless, out of work or out of sorts,
ravenous with his hot breath, snarling?
You could feed him, let fear fur your windows,
fog your silent roads, mist the dark heathlands
of his snuffling. Or face him, hire your own
Holmes and Watson, shine torches into the
fastnesses of your mind and flush him out.
Or, able to judge the distance between your
own walk and the edge of your high moor, pass on,
pausing just enough for him to catch your scent.
‘Black Dog’ was printed on the interior of a Guernsey bus in the run-up to the island’s first literature festival.
They told us Torfaen – Stone Breaker –
was the older name and that our river
only became grey – Afon Llwyd –
when they came to cut the coal.
‘You could not see it for foam,’
my father said. He remembered its speed,
just as fast as we boys found it,
taking the feet from beneath you, taking its toll.
They all but emptied our valley of magic
when they filled in the fields
between each village to form our town.
Except here, behind Ty Pwca,
where the worn lane rises in its steep bend
beyond The Last Bus Stop and The Fairy’s House:
the Pwca, our Bwgi-Man, your Puck.
And there, where the Candwr Brook –
The Singing Waters – still clears her throat
over smooth, cold stones.
So why, I wondered, from Saxton,
an Elizabethan approximation
of the name we had all used all along?
Had the stream, Torfaen, simply lost her voice
as she broadened to a river
somewhere bleaker, blacker, a place
with spittle in its throat, a rattling in its lungs?
Or did our Afon Llwyd only combine
with Torfaen to form one grey, stone-breaking river
when they baptised us all into one Borough
and gave us each a name we never knew?
‘Torfaen’ was among the winners of The Poetry Society’s ‘Buried Language’ competition and appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of Poetry News.
I have shaken hands with a man who shook
the hand of one whose small step took him
to the very threshold of the stars;
sat across a table from a woman
who clasped the cold chunk of stone he came back with;
have myself handled prints fixed from moments
frozen through a lens that settled, unblinking,
on the silent face of Mars.
I have a friend whose grandfather watched Bleriot’s
frail box bounce along a chalky down by Dover;
met a railwayman whose father knew a porter
whose father rapped a drum at Waterloo.
They say you are never more than six people away
from anyone else on earth – president, pope or predator –
a single breath from death, nor ever more than
ten feet from the presence of a rat.
May then my children’s children shake the hand
of a man who shook the hand of one who shook
the hand of him who trod the silver dust of heaven,
who heaved, in heavy boots and helmet, his slight
frame lightly across the surface of the moon.
‘Connections’ was a runner-up in The Stafford Poetry Competition in 2009.
TRUE PROPERTIES OF WOOD
This tree has grown to grasp three railings
in its trunk. They sprout like its own shoots, welts
wrapped around their stems, their trident prongs
bent back as though to prevent more harm.
You tell me of another tree in Wales that grew
and healed itself around a horseshoe
boys embedded in its bark to give themselves
a foothold up. And, how, long after it had sunk
inward without outward trace and the forgotten
boys had ceased to climb, it sent and sprang
a chainsaw kicking and coughing and snarling
back upon itself. Whatever does not kill us
makes us strong. Like those blunt heads
of army-issue shot buried in the ash bole
the chair-maker shows us in his shop,
the growth rings swollen to half-an-inch
the year the bullets struck. It bulged
to grip them tight against rain and frost.
‘I never take a tree that once stood in a hedge,’
he says. ‘Too many hasps and staples, lengths
of wire. But this lead is soft, for all its size.
Target practice. See? feel it there, clustered close.
Yet easy to work and chisel down.
It gives me something to talk about in the shop –
The tree that was shot.’ We run our fingers
across its scars, stroke the solid bog-oak table
in his window. Soaked five thousand years,
burnished smooth, tanned as leather, hard as iron.
‘True Properties of Wood’ appeared in Issue 200 of Planet in 2010.
When our mother hid your wallet –
and her purse – it did not delay you long.
You emptied our tobacco tins
of the coins we kept for Airfix and comics,
spent them in the Rose and Crown.
Silver, newly decimal, bitter copper,
a tang of Golden Virginia.
So whenever now by chance
I catch the blue bite of roll-ups
at the back of my throat,
I recall the nightly jingle of your keys,
your loose change,
the dregs and butt ends breathed
across our bunk beds,
your sing-song low rebuke
as you found us both awake.
Of course, I bear no grudge –
bend across to kiss you,
all smart and faintly comic
in your funeral suit, the spotted tie
and waistcoat we’d never seen you wear.
At your flat after, we discuss your wit,
your misogyny, over orphaned pints
of Crow Valley draw your sisters’ disapproval.
‘Decimal Five’ appeared in the on-line supplement to the Welsh edition of Agenda : ‘Carpenters of Song’. To see poems from the printed publication see Phil’s blog.
‘As for the appeal of icons to popular sentiment, perhaps this was best understood by local Soviet commanders in the 1930s […] ordered to campaign against the influence of the Church, they were known to line up icons, sentence them to death and then shoot them.’
Judith Herrin, Byzantium
A stern Christ, a Theotokos, wise
and almond-eyed, the cloud of painted
witnesses who watched the priest,
week by week, bustling and fussing
behind the iconostasis,
each time observed, in spoon and chalice
the invisible, miraculous change.
Windows to heaven, dismantled, dislodged,
stacked in a shuttered row against the wall.
At the reading of the charges, the charging
of the barrels, the belt-feed, bolt-click, taking aim,
many wept. And in the stillness before
the splintering dance of painted panels
disintegrating in an iron wind,
as in the stillness beyond, the steady
crossing and recrossing of fingers,
dipping and rising, like the dipping and rising
of the golden spoon.
Once, we stopped, left our bikes, stripped
and swam covertly in the red clay-pit
we called the Quarry. Drying on its bank,
we looked back across its piers and poles,
those barbed wire strands,
that dorsal fin of corrugated iron,
compared our cocks and balls.
Of course, we dared not tell our parents,
as they’d neither dared tell theirs.
It all lies buried now, sunk without trace
beneath breeze-block and concrete,
dredged of its iron, its drowned boys
circling blind and deep beneath our feet
to clutch us had we swum there longer.
‘Diptych’ and ‘Quarry’ appear in The University of Chester’s ‘Still Life’ anthology (ISBN 978-1-905929-88-7).
LIKE TREES WALKING
i.m. ‘S.B’ – Sidney Bradford (1906 – 1961) and Professor Richard Gregory (1923 – 2010). ‘S.B’ was a blind Birmingham cobbler whose sight was restored by pioneering surgery. Professor Gregory carried out ground-breaking research with him on the way we process and interpret visual information.
He had learned, in his darkness, how to piece
the parts together to form a shoe –
the sole, the heel, the tongue –
to trace raised lettered signs by finger-tip.
And to marvel, without one final sense
to guide him, at the workings of the lathe.
He has it now, bright and unrelenting
save in sleep. He learns to match face to voice,
body mass to footfall or familiar
shuffled gait. Even when Christ performed
this miracle, it still required adjustment.
‘I see men but they are like trees walking.’
In the wonder of the pub, where friends’ faces
recur over and over in glass and brass,
he can only find them when they sit or settle
beside him so he can touch a shoulder
or clasp a hand. The Professor, with his notes
and drawings, his box of optical illusions,
wooden cubes and cones and spheres,
is not surprised at his subject’s slow response.
But he is struck by the swift exchange
of knowledge from sense to sense,
the way the cobbler’s art of feeling time
on punched watch-face numbers transfers
to recognition without the use of hands.
He remains no judge of distance, retains
an immunity to illusion, a terror now of traffic
with no white stick to ward it off.
He is pleased with the flurry of pigeons,
disappointed with dust and flaking paint,
his wife’s face. The Professor only hears
his subject laugh in Regent’s Park, as giraffes
lift their branched and mottled heads above
the fence. And when the curator lets ‘S.B’
handle the vintage Maudsley screw-cutting
lathe, he tells them, ‘Now I’ve touched it, I can see.’
‘Like Trees Walking’ appears in the current edition of Purple Patch.