Poems by Steve Griffiths

Some poems from Weathereye: Selected Poems

The Mines in Sepia Tint

A man beats his wife on the mountainside.

Their shouts pierce the copper drumskin
of the coming storm: the earth of copper
the heather, the copper sky:

everything rumbles round inside the drum.

The man in a grey suit, white-faced,
his eyes shifting fast and nervous
copper copper copper copper the woman
outraged by my witness of her beating

my warning shout as I passed
and my feet pounded the veins of copper
across country: then, poised on thin white legs,
doubtfully angry, wet hair plastered on my forehead,
sixteen, not knowing what to do.

They gave me silent, heated looks,
and I ran on.

Later, I wrote a poem about the pylons on the horizon.

1976

The Horse’s Mouth

On such a day among the stones and the shafts
among such shouts I could hear the eightpenny women
sorting the ore from the rubble at their trestles
with their hymns of the Revival rising

damping and diverting
till the Corn Riots of 1817
when grain was still exported from Anglesey
though there was famine:

nightly assemblages of persons
amounting to nearly 200
have kept the inhabitants
in a continual state of alarm

the anonymous title of persons
thus distanced from the interests
of alarmed inhabitants; the persons
of course were egged on by ringleaders

who were brought to justice,
having detained a vessel in the port
laden with corn, alleging its scarcity
in excuse for their conduct:

on receiving a six month sentence
they were very properly and very ably
admonished from the Bench;
the troops embarked for Ireland again.

Imagine the loyalties of eightpence a day
to the Cornish managers off the tall ships,
the torn hands and powerful forearms,
a yellow handkerchief knotted at the head.

Imagine the loyalties of eightpence a day,
the wages deducted by the Agent of the Mine
paid directly to the shopkeeper Greathead
his son-in-law, to encourage continence

and frugality among the labouring classes
who are not aware of what you and I
understand as moral guilt,
and filial profit:

I fancy I have as great a feeling
for a poor man as anyone, but justice
to the concern demands severity at times.  

Villa-Famès, August 1986

for Fernando Almela and i.m. Alberto Solsona, 1943-88

Red, soft-rock strata cut a line
of niches, shelters, age-creases
and navels in dry, strewn terraces
of erosion and collapse.
In hardened powdery space
abandoned to hawks and foxes
we were easily scattered among fossils.
Our voices indiscreetly
defied the undersea silence
among the winds, and were lost.

In a decorated overhang
a chipped half-circle of stick-men
move with serious staves and appetite
through layers of memory and smoke.
It’s their blood inundates the streets
from flood-channels high in the town.
With an arrow through him
a bull rears and falls forward
in ochre and blood,
surrounded in the grey bushes.

 

The afternoon gone badly awry,
firecrackers, beercans and  oildrums
crash through the last of the bull’s mind.

Neatfooted, barrel-chested, tossing
star on a rope with a minder, he came in
to the faces leaning forward to applaud
and the leafing back of old men
in their irony and knowing pride
for boys their children raised
who stretch and thrust and crow
their hips seasoned with wine and panic.

Their fast trainers touch
the edge of the bull’s reach
to provoke the girls with fingers sucked
between their teeth:

the bull keeps coming,
he’s a boxer with the odds stacked
and the crowd applaud its dreams,
his breathing
sorely intimate and provoked.

He bursts up the stairs, over a barrier scattering runners into back yards
breaking sanctuary.
Women wave red towels for him
and he looks for his escape in lizard cracks.

He’s down again, quick and light
and goaded by the curious flapping of a hat:
he fills a gap between spars
with his jarring distended trophy of a face.
He leaves a last mark in the wall of a café.

Only his tail and flanks move
and a scribble of flies
that ride his heat.
There’s a questioning
unsteady stillness.

Through a field that blossoms handkerchiefs
and hands to catch his eye,
he turns to begin his last passes
to the small men running away
down his long vista.

The halter’s ready.
Behind him are stick-men who poke and shout.
A beercan clatters towards him.
A father holds up his little girls to the bull.

He’s wound in closer on a line
towards the butcher’s laundered shorts.

The murdered bull goes up to the square,
becomes hung meat on a cross,
is elected mayor and presides
over a music shrill, lop-sided, steely
with a movement of hips for his death.
There is subtle food in the clarinet and saxophone,
there are stately dark shades
on dining chairs, dressed for a nativity.
A slow colouring from the throat
of a trumpet hovers round
intimate parts that glisten in buckets
and probably reflect the stars above,
however faintly.

Six fiesta queens relax
beyond the arc lights, lounging
doe-eyed in their self-belief;
six official virgins off-duty,
marriageable somewhere between tonight
and the eighteenth century,
decorated with good hope,
strapping daughters in shawls
of intricate lace,
the village fixed on them
with carnival tenacity
to invest in and honour their vigour
of weathered figureheads
with green shoots and a lick of paint,
their grandmothers’ gold combs in their hair.

Through flaking teeth of rock
that lay broken on hillsides
run imprints of movement,
rushes of stone, stills.

A lean fox turns to watch
women once honoured
bury the thin resilience
of their voices in ploughed land.

Dry clouds crackle their long storm
like a leaf in the fist
over a parched line of almonds.

A video trained on coils of blue plumbing
in a bucket by the fountain
summoned the gut-stirring curiosities
of the Civil War:
those farmworkers who carried out
centuries of the bodies of saints and nuns
and arranged them
interestingly, in daylight
in the plenitude of their inheritance.

Scavenging in the early chill of the square
the fox looks up to the silent windows
and the sleepers behind their eyelids of stone
where blood dries quicker than music.

Purpose and industry: Dalston 1991

Caught in the snarl-up,
from behind your demister
you watch the schoolboys dealing
in the doorways of the convenience store.
Life’s rich tapestry, you think.

Behind a skip off Gillett Street
big boys on little stolen bikes
pick up their envelopes from a shaman
at the wheel of a big car.
There’s a feeling of purpose and industry.

He slips on the skin he employs
to harness the illness of others
like a giant corporation does,
at ease when some things
fall out of focus.

In the grip and thunder of music
under narcotic overhangs
his strides are disproportionate
through the market’s hills
of litter people pick among.

In the washrooms of the towers of the City
just a mile away,
worlds above the subsoil of the Blitz,
the pupils of some little dealers with a habit
flare and dilate.

They flit silently in soft soles
forty thousand feet above Libya,
watching the flames in desert wells:
just so, they watch over us
through the night.

We are unaware of their white noise.
The shifting of currency quickens,
flickering above the closed land
where lightless farms boil dry,
their supply lines reduced to an absurdity.

Here in Hackney, see the coherent
chain to the distribution of the crop
in the alley where they have boys
to look after the cars.
No need to understand

the needs of goats, now, anywhere.
No need to be stacking shelves
and losing face.  There’s not much
to be heard for the clacking
of credit cards in the bushes.

The heads are razored to the bone,
telling you the skin
is a brief tent draped over rifts.

The doors of the year, well done

Up Balls Pond Road the turkey’s
speeding past the window
where the Eyyup Ercan Mustafa Brothers’
sausage in batter’s left for dead.
Straining through the door-frame
full of ebullience,
it takes to the cognac like after-shave
in readiness for the solitary honours
of the oven.
Stuffed
with prunes and apricots
it’ll agree to anything
like some half-remembered uncle.
Our cat Snowflake bites
digits at the edge of madness,
faced with the deadpan requiescat
of the sealed container
where the turkey slumbers
like Sir Walter Raleigh, his ultimate night
no less fruitful in its way.

Gorging is deeply ingrained
to force the window of the New Year
and to make the Sun come pink again
blushing a few minutes above the horizon
the colour of a hung turkey
to help us sleep easy now
towards the buds in the snow.

May the last supper
with its judicious shower of friends
last long, the turkey flushed and full of itself
and the Queen allowed in again
after all these years
to say that harmless parody.
May we forgive our parents
as we forgive ourselves
within the bottles
of our sloped  shoulders.
May we grow politic, mellow
and forgive our little replicas
and the poorer years:
but first, this morning,
the expected spoiling of toys,
the glow of obtrusive joy,
the hopping from foot to foot
at the grey crack of dawn
as we insist on the revenge
of the watched kettle
before the grating tear of paper
and the crows of delight
by the black grate.
And awake on the gradient of morning
the root vegetables
coming smooth in my hand
amid your fury of industrious love.

Like a minute of impending snow
the turkey in the oven
darkens and whitens.

1991

al-Chwm

amlwch: n.abundance; also, a small town on the north-east coast of Ynys Môn

1

The place I grew up in’s called abundance.
My not knowing Welsh
was not knowing this,
flowering in adulthood
one side of a fissure.
Circumstance and time
are two thieves shaking with laughter
but in other spheres I trudge
toward responsibility
for truths and lies in language,
sitting on the verge
at times with my bags.
This is written in the wind:
why not here?

2

Half a century of cataracts
over round stones that were eyes
to heaven, of water chuckling
minutely through stained brickwork
and I emerge into al-Chwm
with a sudden jolt of trust
with the relief you feel when you explode
out of a tunnel in the Underground
to a crash of leaves and speed and light,
the roar’s end.    Then a quiet animal
homecoming.  

3

al-Chwm is an inversion
of fulfilment and language,
mindful of children
growing up displaced
with their years not rightly focused,
and those for whom
the simple is at first too obvious,
who can only ride a bike
with a partner looping up and down
on the other pedal, on a steep hill
with a bend at the bottom,
and there’s traffic.

It comes from an inability
to look abundance straight in the eye.    

4

al-Chwm’s a town on a concealed point
that comes to you when you’re ready,
when the mist lifts, stripped of its poison,

a town that strains at the leash
that slips out of my hand.

1999

Entering al-Chwm

It began and ended with the barking of tethered dogs,
a hundred street lights for the non-existent carouser,
nobody up who was up to any good
but nobody was up,
footfalls exaggeratedly soft in the house,
the fridge appearing to boil defiantly
in its limelight,
ordinary things reversed
in a town like any other
that had never slept, nor ever would.

A man carries the place he comes from
on his back as he unravels,
it is transformed with every step as he is.
Others in his peripheral vision
shift their shape, but it is always he
who is running through a defence
with a mazy run that slows
and the game ratchets up to a blur
of speed and wonder, the tackles come
in a series of thuds within him
and he is on his own,
the commentator faded to their mutual relief,
and the judgement:
he was meant to pass the ball but didn’t.

He is reconstructed as he diminishes
by schoolmates he hardly remembers
who have carried him forty years without noticing,
by the milk of human interference,
and he carries their vowels for them
that jostle for his attention in gatherings.
Friends wrote a different essay
when they were eleven
and collide a second time
in the same time and place,
their electrons and neutrons
arranged for a different party.

He drifts, not noticing
the decisive moments under his feet.
The town he turns in to is al-Chwm
with his pancake stack of faces
that consolidate to the one book
with its pages of flour and disappointment,
dried milk and prevailing smile
collapsed into each other,
with his waiter’s tree of dishes
for the approval of the town he’s made
that will come out to meet him.
Many meals, many traces, but the dogs
bark for each other, not for him.

This is al-Chwm, they say:
it is permitted to drop unnecessary loads.
There are memories he will declare
nothing to declare, green channel
and there will be nothing we can do.
It appears that what happens is allowed.
He finds the people of al-Chwm
wear mirrors on their clothes,
their currency is uncertainty,
their traditions rich
but indistinct.

Their monuments leave much
to an imagination shaped
carelessly by weather and time,
preserved for a minute that lasts.
Their songs resonate in the memory
as in a dome – it’s acoustic
rather than detail they celebrate
though there are fragments
strangers recognise,
and those they bring –
it’s not clear which.

Those who seek refuge here are safe:
the code for acceptance is a capacity
to raise one eyebrow
and they have joined you, or you them.
Thus a concern for justice is unknown
which brings much relief,
and al-Chwm is immaterial to the Fall
which fell past it, unobserved.
The parallel has replaced the afterlife.

1999

Hindsight

There’s a room of transition
at the slightly shabby end
of a branch line
closed years ago,
where you are visited
by an embarrassment
of sins of the heart.

They are persistent,
those old adolescent
crimes of meanness,
the seeing another’s individuality
or hunger as a shadow
that became a lead ingot
in your ageing pocket.

Still they bring you
the small presents
that diminish you,
they know no other way
but the way
of the mirror
of the act.

There’s sometimes
no need of forgiveness,
as when you pay the bill
discreetly in a restaurant
and turn away,
that is, if ever
you have the wherewithal.

2000

The Shelveian Event

for Robert Minhinnick

That multicoloured swirl
was the coast of Shropshire
on the edge of the geology
of Wales when it was submarine.
For days I walked the shore
of the micro-continent of Avalonia
that boiled alternately
and ground its neighbours
till the Golden Apples came about:
Afallon, the Hesperides
beyond the gates of Hercules.
I watched the sunset’s nightly change
of minerals, the green of all the limes,
the pink of all the shales of the sky
where Avalonia collided in the Shelveian event
with Baltica, and reared and bucked
five thousand miles in fifty million years,
still rising from the South Atlantic
in its slow, dancing, dreaming gale:
across a human lifetime it shifts upward
further on six feet northeast.

Thus Shelve’s quiet hamlet
bears the name of greatness
thrust upon it
like an intercontinental Waterloo
where nothing might have happened
until something did:
the vaulting
at the great blunt blade of Avalonia’s bow-wave
rode hemispheres on the slow
whip of the earth – that crushing, tearing,
gnashing, rupture and release,
the indiscriminate rushed packing
to expose curved backs of land,
among them the terrane of Shelve
shifted over from Llandrindod
to lie against and name the Shelveian faulting –

shovelled as we are, postman,
farmer, our future
spiralled in the trilobite,
the graptolite, its tuning fork
that rolled and slipped through the mixing
of the planet for our ears to ring
one day and ache with the wind,
our eyes to map just north
of Grit Hill, Old Grit and the hill
of Mucklewick, Disgwylfa Hill,
its half-remembered language
postcarded through the scheme of things
from the sitting room at Squilver Farm.
And to the south of Corndon Hill
whose Ordovician dolerite
piped the hot verticals
that to this day mushroom its cowl,
the Hyssington Volcanic Member,
acid vitroclastic tuffs,
sandstones, wackes;
and dreaming in the south
of distant time, breaking rhythm –
the Clun Forest Disturbance,
the heavy footstep of its thunderous glance.

   A January wind
carves across Hyssington Marsh.
The clouds are whipped away,
the sky is clear.
I stare for hours at the thought
of raindrops’ impact, baked
for posterity in seconds,
fossilised with care on mudflats
one by one in the tenderness
of moments hardly yet materialised.
The storm passed on,
the earth is harsh,
and came to something here.

2008

Words

Don’t get me wrong,
some of my best friends
are words,
especially my own.
There are more of them about

than there used to be:
they stick to your face
and drop to the ground
with odd numbers of legs
protesting at the air.

They don’t string together
on the page and stay there:
like birds on the wire
they abandon you, autumn
can come any time.

There’s no knowing whither
they’ll be bound: perhaps
to the forgotten crossroads
where an adult’s words
manhandled you aside

as you tried
to describe the thunder.
There’s no ceiling to belief
in their power: what they say
goes before they wither.

There is so much hurt in words,
there are not enough
eyes in the world
to flinch from it,
those eyes lit up

that are looking hungrily
for words to do justice to them.
The words are greater in number
than the maggot or the starling,
than the sum of meaning.

Friends tell me, sit and listen
to what’s there where none
penetrate, but they do,
through cracks and keyholes
and channelled down the wind

in the grass where I lie.
It’s a wise man
who can turn away from them.
Even as I look up
the clouds are heavy with little ones.     

2010

Heart

Why do I always remember
my mother’s words
from her one encounter with you
that if I fell down the toilet
I’d come up with a bunch of violets?
I was getting over
the last cohabitation,
off and on the vexing bicycle
of love: it was the falling off
that wasn’t any easier
but here was something different
she thought she saw
that made her throat catch for me –
this I knew she meant,
barbed and wise
and hopeful for a moment,
if I fell in love with you.
You were a smart bunch of violets.
I wasn’t yet connected up.
Smitten as I was, I bothered you
as you drove, just out of your teens,
tall and still coltish as you sat
on your dignity at the wheel
of your grey little A35,
I not knowing how to put
my overflowing want.
Not driving yet myself,
I never stood a chance
and then a common strand
through all the rich young detail
of the women who came after you,
all that I didn’t cotton on to,
was the wanting to catch up
with something vanished up ahead
that others had – a hurtful
dislocation, heartless in effect,
I realise as I celebrate
a perceptible beat,
an irregular, soft,
insistent uplift.

2007

Spring

Viewed from above in early spring
the oaks have a shifting, softened quality
that gathers itself for green.
Spaced at our feet
the birdcalls rise at intervals
and the urgent, airy thump
of wingbeats punctuates
complaint with escape.

A rustle of wind
moves up the hill towards us,
recedes through the mix
of trees behind us, all
the senses awakened.  

I had thought my capacity
for happiness was limited.
It is good to have arrived here
even if a little late,
discovering a language
I was exiled from,
waking with the ground
strewn with clouds and flowers
and images with their names
that are breaking cover, unafraid.

2007

Weathereye: Selected Poems
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