For years afterwards the farmers found them –
The wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
As they tended the land back into itself.
A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
The relic of a finger, the blown
And broken bird’s egg of a skull,
All mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
Across this field where they told to walk, not run,
Towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.
And even now the earth stands sentinel,
Reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
Like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin,
This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
A broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
Their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre
In boots that outlasted them,
Their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
And their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.
As if the notes they had sung Have only now, with this unearthing,
Slipped from their absent tongues.
The Light Fell
The weather was confused all day
So who can say why it was just then
The light fell that way –
The sun riding slow, burnishing
For a minute, no more, the tops of the hills
Against a curtain of cloud, ashen with rain and snow.
Or why it was then the deer chose to show their faces,
Lift their heads from gazing, step near, pause
Before coming on again. “Oh human life, mysterious”
I heard a woman cry, “not gone, oh no, not gone”.
There’s electrics you know.
I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it to be so”.
And as the light fell drew our eyes, a thinning seam of amber
Compressed between the land and sky, I could believe it too.
That your guiding hand had motion still
And influence among these hills, to light the
Crag and Michael’s Vale Just so, according to your will.
And as the soil hit the wood and the gathered crowd moved,
Pressed arms, said what they could, wished well and farewell,
That it was just as much you as the still lowering sun
That threw one flank of the valley dark
And left the other lit,
To illustrate, as the land here always did,
What we’d but sensed within ourselves.
How at once and from the very same source,
A light could rise, as the same light fell.
The Hill Fort
On a clear day he’d bring him here,
His young son, charging the hill
As wild as the long-maned ponies
Who’d watch a moment
Before dropping their heads to graze again.
When he finally got him still
He’d crouch so their eyes were level,
One hand at the small of his back
To the other tracing the horizon,
Pointing out all the places lived in
By the fathers and sons before them:
Tretower, Raglan, Bredwardine…
And what he meant by this but never said, was
“Look. Look over this land and see how long
The line is before you – how in these generations
We’re no more that scattered grains;
That from here in this view, 9, 19, or 90 years
Are much the same;
That it isn’t the number of steps
That will matter,
But the depth of their impression.”
And that’s why he’s come back again,
To tip these ashes onto the tongue of the wind
And watch them spindrift into the night.
Not just to make the circle complete,
To heal or mend,
But because he knows these walls,
Sunk however low,
Still hold him in as well as out:
Protect as much as they defend.
Blessing himself with his apron,
The leather black and tan of a rain-beaten bay,
He pinches a roll-up to his lips and waits
For the mare to be led from the field to the yard,
The smoke slow-turning from his mouth
And the wind twisting his sideburns in its fingers.
She smells him as he passes, woodbine, metal and hoof,
Careful not to look her in the eye as he runs his hand
The length of her neck, checking for dust on a lintel.
Folding her back leg with one arm, he leans into her flank
Like a man putting his shoulder to a knackered car,
Catches the hoof between his knees
As if it’s always just fallen from a table,
Cups her fetlock and bends,
A romantic lead dropping to the lips of his lover.
Then the close work begins; cutting moon-sliver clippings,
Excavating the arrow head of her frog,
Filing at her sole and branding on a shoe
In an apparition of smoke,
Three nails gritted between his teeth,
A seamstress pinning the dress of the bride.
Placing his tools in their beds,
He gives her a slap and watches her leave,
Awkward in her new shoes, walking on strange ground.
The sound of his steel, biting at her heels.
Not yet My Mother
Yesterday I found a photo
Of you at seventeen
Holding a horse and smiling,
Not yet my mother.
The tight riding hat hid your hair,
And your legs were still the long shins of a boy’s.
You held the horse by the halter,
Your hand a fist under its huge jaw.
The blown trees were still in the background
And the sky was grained by the old film stock,
But what caught me was your face,
Which was mine.
And I thought, just for a second, that you were me.
But then I saw the woman’s jacket,
Nipped at the waist, the ballooned jodhpurs,
And of course the date, scratched in the corner.
All of which told me again,
That it was you at seventeen, holding a horse
And smiling, not yet my mother,
Although I was clearly already your child.