Thursday 26 November 2009

A Totem Animal Speaks

For Jenny and Rebecca

I have a long snout and live close to the ground, foraging
for food in the undergrowth.

My back is covered in spines. I get caught on clothing and am often carried miles from home.

I am descended from the burdock plant.

I walk backwards into people because I am too shy to greet them face to face. All too often, this gets their backs up.

I curl in upon myself whenever I'm afraid. I am occasionally mistaken for a football.

My front is very soft. Sometimes it hurts.

Once, I met a woman who worked with confused horses. I climbed into her lap and she let me sleep there for a while.

I uncurl in the presence of patient people who talk quietly and don't mind waiting.

I am a nocturnal cactus.

In moonlight, I produce vitamin D.

I eat snails and then take their empty shells home. My walls and ceilings are made of yellow, cream and brown spirals.

For years, my kind has been hunted. Men, particularly young men in indie bands, kill us for our pelts, which they stick onto their chins for women to stroke and admire. We are also made into hairbrushes.

My spines may be planted separately in compost, where they will grow into musk rose bushes.

I am afraid of slug pellets and cars.

Wednesday 25 November 2009


He went to the house where the moon lived. She lay upstairs, sleeping on a bed made of ivory and moths’ wings. He climbed the bone staircase, kissed her white paper mouth, and left.
Nothing changed in the house, but after he left, the night glowed a bright, blood red.

© 1997 Telegraph Group Limited

This piece was Highly Commended in the Daily Telegraph & Arvon Foundation's Mini Sagas competition, 1997.

Words and Insects

I have always felt a kinship with entomologists. Words and insects are so similar. Words are small, often black. They move on the earth, although some go underground, where it’s safer. Some words fly or swim and some sting. Some can survive even fire.

Insects are signifiers: cockroach, ladybird, daddy-long-legs and rose chafer can be split into their constituents, can buzz about us, carrying their meanings on delicate wings. If we want to, we can pull their legs off.

Behind the bark on rotting trees, words breed. They’re making nests, colonies, cities. Pull away the first layers, they scuttle out to frighten, charm or disgust us. They are gorgeous: iridescent greens and blacks, stripes and spots of red and yellow, but there is decaying matter on their legs and mouths, and if touched, they exude a foul-smelling oil that will burn us and itch for days.

There is something obscene about insects. In-sect: jointed, sectioned, cut. It’s a private word, a word of intersection, insertion, dissection, sadomasochism. The word is a scalpel: its jaws will harm us. And we in turn will dissect the word to find out where it comes from. We cut it, it bursts with eggs.

Last Day of the Vic Reeves Show

Everything’s closing.
The butterflies are folding
their wings. The beetles
are shutting the black
lids of their backs.
The birds are testing
and preening their feathers,
in anticipation of migration
to the basement. The jaws
on the skulls are closing,
their no-eyes are heavy
in their sockets. The skinless,
tissue-less snake is shedding
its bones in the un-breathed
air in the glass of its case.
The canvasses are peeling
themselves from their frames
and rolling away
with the bath-chair. Even
the spotlights are sleepy.

On this last day, I will climb
inside a painting: this one,
with the sea and the white-
bottomed bird. I will float
in the spout of the kettle,
steer with the black and white
pole, and follow the bird,
through the storm, through
September and the surging
equinox tides, through the rain
and the smudges of clouds,
keeping my eyes on the white
spot on the tail of the bird.
I will chuck my badge
overboard, put my feet up,
whistle a shanty, with a brew
on the go, bubbling beneath,
as an albatross circles
and sings in the voice
of the mistlethrush.

The Scrying Bowl

Come closer.
This black water in a silver bowl
is a black and silver lake.
Here reflected trees distort.
The black bird flies
from branch to branch.
Here your face appears,
framed by branches,
rising to you:
black eyes, black mouth.

Deep within this mirror,
the faces of your future, of yourself:
the moon becomes the bull
becomes the child
you will never know.
Her face is your face,
her hands are yours:
the self-same fingers
strain towards you
as you reach down.

Four hands touch the surface,
breaking it. You pull away,
leaving only ripples.

This poem first appeared in Agenda's online suppliment.


On this shaven hill,
suspended between death and something after,
I watched the empty purse that was my body
as they cut it from the cross.

You were there beneath it,
though you couldn’t stand and they sat you in the shade
of that unnatural tree. You took my mass of limbs
upon your lap and rocked it

as though I were your child again.
You cried a cradle song: a lullaby to wash away
the blood and dirt, while the wound at my side
kissed a stain into your gown.

This poem first appeared in an online suppliment to Agenda.


My poem, 'Lupercalia' won this year's Chapter One Promotions poetry competition.

Friday 6 November 2009

The Story of S

S is for Snake. I remember first seeing that on the walls of my reception class at primary school: a sinuous green and red snake smiling down on me. S was my silent friend in a too noisy classroom. She was my guardian, my keeper, my saint.

I remember first learning to write her: it gave me such pleasure to describe that curve which doubles back on itself.

S begins and ends my name. I feel held and contained by her. She makes my name a caduceus, as she twines around and through me.

S is for secrecy and sorcery. She is the sinister sister of the hidden path. S hides, waiting for me to pass. She whispers to me.

S sings me to sleep.

S slithers from my grasp.

S is a sea-swimmer and I’m afraid of water. She calls me to join her, but I can only watch. She swims like a seahorse, like mosquito larvae, flexing her spine.

I love the numbers I associate with S: Five and Seven. She’s the green serpent of Five and the lilac serpent of Seven. As Five, foliage sprouts from her mouth; as Seven, she’s a ghost, a spectre.

S is incomplete, imperfect: she’s Eight broken, snapped, halved. She strives for eternity, for (re)union, but she can’t attain it. S is all desire. She falls in love too easily.

S is for September, the month in which I was born. She’s all ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’… though I’ll say anything to feel closer to Keats.

S turns to Sh in Sian: Shin, not Samekh. I have always felt divided by this difference between the spelling and the pronunciation of my name: often, I have to spell it for people I meet, and have to pronounce it for people who have only read it.

I lie down and my twin S’s curl around me. One of them is already asleep. The other remains awake.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Spirit Bottle

Here is a body,
a container
of the correct proportions,
a little long perhaps,
a little thin.
Here are sinews,
muscles, bones,
coils and strings
of red and white;
hard, turned sticks
and ivory dowels;
the threads of veins.
Here is a centre,
a lump of a heart
to jig, to flex,
for the rhythm
in the dancing.
Here are lungs
to squeeze,
to wheeze,
airbags, a throat
for the singing.
Here everything moves,
quivers, pulses,
trills, resounds.
Here's a home for a spirit,
fill it, fill it.