poems and stories
scroll down to read poems and stories in our
growing weekly from October to December 2019
meet the poets and writers
Our first poem for autumn is by Lesley Quayle
Now is the time for ripening plums and yellow grass,
maize shouldering the sky, hedgerows cut,
sharp and angular – the precise geometry of field edges.
I could lie down among vetch and rye-grass,
disturb tiny, starry moths, listen to the hungering
rooks and wait for the first leaf to fall.
I may squint at the low sun, hand-cast a shadow
over my brow, and watch the gauzy edge of autumn
fold over blackthorn, savour the chill of summer’s ghost,
let wilderness seep through veins, fill up the hollow heart,
a nest of root and twigs and stolen down, close my eyes
while drifting spiders weave their silk,
smirr my lashes to placate unfiltered light.
Stay there, ignoring tasks, the scratch and fret
of hour collapsing into hour, like scything nettles,
and maybe sleep, time marked by nothing more
than one leaf after another.
After ‘The Fall’, Hugo van de Goes, 1479
He was happy with my form
till he happened across yours.
Like any child the impulse is to play
not make; your limbs it seems
are more pliable and your hearts
So the fact that I could wind myself
into circles that inspired the sun,
tie myself into copulative knots,
make language in the sand,
meant nothing but more possibilities for you.
We lived together a good while – you wished
your tongue could read the air like mine,
I wished my eyes could talk.
We grew further apart.
Your hisses became syllabic,
you whispered to one another.
Tried to meet you in the middle:
hid in bushes growing legs
that lent no length, couldn’t bring me
any closer to your ear.
My face craved reflection,
stung with unread frowns and smiles.
I wish, I wish it were as simple
as a piece of fruit.
Truthfully, there was no taboo
hanging from that tree –
it was just where we played,
but your ideas grew quicker than trees
and you imagined fruits
that would never grow here
and they still won’t grow here
just as I don’t grow and everything
without you stays the same.
Previously published in The Learned Goose by Jo Brandon (Valley Press, 2015)
specifications for an orchard
an old brick wall
as tall as a giant
bearded with moss and buddleia
curved like a protecting arm
a wooden door
in a throttle of brambles
its purpose long lost to itself
grass, wherever it can get,
each chlorophyll pennant
jostling for sunlight
a gang of pollen-traffickers
bizz-buzzing and flitting
a chair with no sitter
listing to starboard
and four fruit trees,
pear and apples,
left to get on with it.
their crop is bountiful.
there’s no sign in the orchard
First published in OL’ CHANTY – Chanticleer Magazine Online.
I have developed a patience for preparing food,
scouring markets in the heat
for the reward of pungent apricots, peaches and nectarines,
plump cherries and dirt-covered potatoes.
I love adding ice to a glass of retsina as we watch the sea in the evenings,
away from the thoughts and madness of the world,
friends and family;
a place to live, and just be.
We have a nasty colony of black ants under our backyard table
and other small ants of amber;
I spend hours watching them wrestle, bite each other to the death,
as I sip cool mineral water in the shade.
I have the time to see it, and sometimes I interfere,
or ache as I watch one drag its injured body across the concrete.
I could be a black fruit poem:
richness of darkest choicest blackberry ripe,
juicy my tongue,
liquid Blueberry Delight with billberry.
A wilderness of bramble and thorn
a wicked thicket
enticing my wild dark words
with fleshy mellow flavour.
Rounding my mouth,
swelling my lips, staining
my fingers, my tongue,
announcing my appetite
for purple, for blue
and for you.
One word of me is not enough
you will want more
and more and one more
and just, perhaps,
You will come with fingers ready,
with buckets and with your children
and you will love me.
I will hide me in hedgerow,
and your children will find me
and eat me before I am ready to ripe me.
And many times you’ll walk right past me
because you’ve forgotten
I am free for the picking.
I could mango my words with exotic twist
and tang and peel and stone and sucking stone
and hair and watering tongue and lick and dissolve
to sugar your flesh.
Mango with southern scent of Mexico, India, Africa
so sweet within one skin
to outwit your blue blackberry dark forest competition.
I will win with mango slow go,
just wait for me to ripen, wait
for my words to arrive and surprise
and startle your eyes awide
and awaken your mind with tease and touch
and soft and silken sticky my caress.
Hold you my heaviness,
heavy my juice and catch me peel me
catch my liquid juicy in your cup,
slice me through or suck me whole,
but unpeel me first,
pierce me through my leather my skin my leathery skin
but wait for me first for my ripen
or I will not surprise and pleasure you.
for my ripening
to drop from branch
onto your sunlit sill.
I met her in the early morning,
muttering through a whitewash of mist,
each footprint a wet hollow of silver
leading from mushroom rings
which nudged the leaf mould
like a clutch of bantam eggs.
Old eyes, their spawn of cataracts
scavenging light in dismal pools,
and words, more incantations,
spooling from her lips like broken
threads. She hastened by
with her cloth full of mushrooms.
She eats with the seasons,
gathers and garners as her folk did,
holds ancestors round her like a shawl.
She’s always known weather ways,
crush of snow on the blunt hills,
the tug and snatch of westerlies,
and spring igniting cold valleys.
Now she lives away from
the mother eye of the village,
with its carnival of light and noise.
Estranged by dogged pride,
deciphered like a seldom spoken tongue,
she clenches her world in a horned hand,
tight as the mushroom cloth.
we climb the path, uneven stone,
reach the small wooden church on the hill;
we sit in the cool,
watch Bulgarian saints
eye us from ancient walls,
and small candles flicker
for those who have passed; I light one
for my mother,
and when I step outside, an old woman
plucks a plum from a nearby tree,
and gives it to me.
we travel on, over the railway track,
where a gypsy in a sparkling shawl waves to us
from a horse and cart,
a homeless kitten accepts my pat,
and horses, untethered, eat wildflowers.
outside our apartment, there is music in the air,
sirtaki, the sounds of Greece;
outside, a stranger collects me in the rain,
and I am not scared;
a little boy talks to me at the bus stop,
waits by my side
until his mother calls him home;
the taverna owner rescues a stray dog,
washes it, indifferent
to his customers who leave at the sight
of fleas drowned in poisoned rivers;
and at our small room, the owner’s son
cleans our clothes for free,
hangs bags of lemons from our door.
Fruit in the 60s
The grapes languished in a bowl in my nan’s living room,
losing their lustre as they dulled under dust.
They might have been ornamental, the stuff of still life.
Eating them felt like an afterthought.
Dinner was there to fill you up and puddings were entertainment.
But fresh fruit lacked all purpose except, it seemed, to keep teeth clean.
Hence that chimp on the TV screen, brandishing a toothsome
apple as the plummy voice-over lauded its evident dental hygiene.
Fruit could come out of a tin, of course, a totally different matter
as we gathered round the table to look on with drooling anticipation
as the sweet syrup supplied the required lubricity and
our afters slithered slurpingly into the waiting bowl.
There they lay, expectant, those halved pears
made in a place called Bartlett. Ice cream from
Naples slipped in beside them in a scandalously
calorific act of consummation. It was only natural!
From the cupboard under your stairs
you pick one from its tray.
A sort of apple, open-ended,
on the turn.
Try, you urge, a spoon waved
like a hypnotist’s chain. Reluctantly,
a child braced for medicine I open up
to be fed a scoop of decay.
Good ? You ask, moist rot melting
to the cusp of sweetness. I tremble a nod
as you slough off your snakeskin boots;
coil yourself into a chair.
First published in The Interpreter’s House
Soon it will be time again to prepare our offering in thanks for the fruit harvest. Many belief systems teach that life is a recurring cycle and our abundant continuum of planting, reaping and celebrating through sacrifice would seem to confirm this.
We have asked that our religious practices be properly recognised through official channels. The probing, the gawking, the constant trolling and threats of interference have to stop.
Her lips this year shall be a bright cherry. Just a hint of a pout. Straw and trimmed vines for her hair. In keeping with tradition, pears and certain varieties of apple have been used to give feminine curvature to her body. I have chosen strawberries for her eyes, complete with the small crown of leafage retained so as to give an open, honest expression to the face. The verisimilitude of this year’s golem is both striking and convincing.
Which brings its own problems. You may remember the court case where our village was accused of murdering one of our earlier creations. The judge rightly ruled that: as she was not human there was no case to answer. But the stigma stuck. A pungent, fermenting stain like mouldering grapes or cider spilled on woollen clothing.
The following year we made a boy. Nature did not approve and we half-starved due to a resultant paltry harvest.
It’s a truism that even those who are spiritually unaware would still acknowledge: for things to live, other things must die. Move over Granddad and let me have the keys to your house, your job, your bank account… For everything that glitters something else must suffer in dullness.
The strawberry girl lives for a week. She moves but doesn’t speak. She smells divine and many become light-headed in her company. She seems to see, to gaze… but can she really be thinking? She has no brain. She is all pith, water, citric acid, seeds… and flesh.
She brings colour and vivacity to the swiftly shortening and darkening days.
She dances with the corn dollies, stands face to face with the scarecrows. She is a country tradition that some in our country would seek to dispense with.
They are narrow-minded, urban consumer-guts who have no knowledge of and who can make no link between their fortune at endless choice and availability and the sacrifices and privations necessary to achieve such a cornucopia. I tell myself this and I share it with you now: the pulping is necessary. The few – the one – must fall so that the many survive and thrive.
She’s not real.
She’s not human.
She’s as alive as you and me.
There will be another year, another harvest. Another strawberry girl.
(In memory of Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018.)
At my childhood home in Somerset, we had an acre and a half of old orchard, bound on the west side by the churchyard, on the north by a brook. In the spring, snowdrops and daffodils grew under the trees and when the weather got warmer, I took root there too, back against the bark, book in hand, dreaming beneath the leaves.
I read of saints and soldiers, wolves and witches, lost worlds, golden days. Those stories are bound in my memory with lichen growing on gnarly branches, the smell of wood and grass, earth and apple.
The harvest brought us all together. When it was fine, from the youngest to the oldest, we went out from the house in the morning with ladders, chattering and picking, gathering up windfalls, loading the trailer and hauling it back, calling across the field and bagging the yield into hessian sacks. We sorted the good fruit from the bruised, the eaters from the cookers, the bittersharps from the bittersweets. We ate bread and cheese on plastic plates without napkins at a trestle table in our wellingtons, normal rules suspended for one day, for just this one shining day in the orchard.
Afterwards, good apples were wrapped in paper and spread out in rows in the loft in the barn, gifts for the year long. The cinnamon scent of apples simmering on the stove filled the house, as my mother in her apron stewed fruit for the larder. My father made cider from the imperfect apples, the disappointing ones, with a press he built from a landrover jack just before he chopped the end off his finger splitting logs. I remember his shout and searching in the rough grass by the wood shed for a bit of flesh with the nail still attached. We never found it.
Some of the apples went to a big cider-maker at Burrow Hill. The man gave us a pound a sack and said they weren’t worth any more, apples were two a penny in Somerset. Any dreams we had of making our fortune quickly faded. He has gone now and the cider press closed and they built over our orchard, the people that came afterwards. But the apples stay ever sweet in the memory and their names remain, wonderful strange, like an old incantation – Beauty of Bath, Dunnings Russet, Curry Codlin, Fairmaid, Hangdown, Hoary Morning, Slack Me Girdle, Tom Putt, Sack and Sugar, Kingston Black, Rough Pippin, Whittles Dumpling, Green Pearmain, Mealy Late Blossom, Burrow Hill Early, Sheep’s Nose.
two hard pears that will never ripen
left on the table, beside the thermos your sister sent us.
outside the mountains, stolen by autumn;
it is time to move on.
there is peace here, in the river beyond the trees,
the courtyard fountain, the old bus that seems to be there
whenever we need it, and the little stray dog
alone now by the bus station,
his mother who knows where.
they were a gutsy pair who lunged into dirt
and the shadows of the day,
chased a car or two, over the night railway without fear,
I pat him one last time,
feel his dirty face pressed against my legs;
I am glad for the bus drivers who feed him,
for his nous to keep away from the mean ones
who pass him only to piss in the bushes.
I recall our walk to St Spas’ grave, the moaning it took to get me there,
our first taste of wild strawberries, the two of us
only game after watching gypsy children
crouch low in the grass, pick their tiny red beginnings.
I will miss the spring water taps on every street,
the kitten at the tosteri drinking from a dirty mop and bucket,
her tiny face licked and satisfied.
when we arrived the air was green,
crisp with pine needles and apple trees;
now chestnuts fall, and walnuts fill crates at the markets,
the boxes of berries slowly diminishing.
We collide at a pumpkin stall down Portobello Market.
You caress the silverblue
lustre of a Crown Prince,
I investigate the green mottle
of Kabucha, skin craggy, crumpled
as an old crone’s hopes
or rocky crevices about Olympus.
Yellow peel Turk’s Turbans glower in a pile.
We twirl, we swirl
beneath a hunter moon
into a dew glazed gloam,
tranced by the keen of a penny
whistle, banshee yowl
of a turf-fire fiddle.
Mammy cautions me not
to flaunt my heart upon my sleeve,
so I sit till after midnight,
illumined in her third degree
and first love’s fluster,
embroider right across my tit,
which you and later I will feel,
a plump crimson pumper,
brethren to the thorn snarled
muscle of the plaster Christ
enshrined beside the sapphire
Mary on the parlour mantle.
You wild eyed Ulysses. The twang
of your finger-lickin’ Gibson
plucks from me a young girl’s fancy
as the plight of your jeans, frayed
as nerves, suggests a stitch-up. I oblige
with bird track tack of rainbow hues infused
with moon-curse fantasies, disenchanted
come the morning
when I find you gone.
First published in Eunoia Review
Still the Apple
His mouth moon-craters my flesh,
curves tiny ribbons in flushed skin.
After gorging, he holds my skeleton
to the light, peers through small slits
between the ribs in search of a heart.
He does not find one, only the rust-
brown of the scalloped wounds left
by his teeth. Later, I’ll bleed black.
For him, little change now, except
his lips’ sometimes strained shape,
weighted down by past sweetness.
First published in Envoi, then in plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press)
A Fruit Basket
I won it
at this year’s garden party raffle,
afterall, this is the sort of village
where fine fruit is prized above
and cheap wine.
Cradled in a thick-woven wicker basket,
blanketed with muslin, tied with ribbon,
the kind you can put in a drawer
and use again. Pretty as a picture,
a shame really, to dismantle
Frog-skin melons nestle like eggs
in their straw lining, stony passion fruits,
a rudeness of pomegranates, green bananas;
a risk, could have spoilt the whole haul,
but they knew what they were about
putting all this together, the pears are perfect,
ready to eat, kiwis moulting softly, lychees peek
between loll-draped limbs bearing grapes:
a bacchanalia of treats.
How many markets did they visit
to accrue all this?
I had only ever seen cucamelons on television,
never held one, cool in my palm, like this.
I have a tin of Jackfruit in my cupboard,
from last year’s tombola, nothing akin
to this tight-curled hedgehog of a thing.
Sweet, putrid, syrupy, olid – a durian bristles
like a giant conker; a vanitas perhaps?
I peel, chop, slice, stew the stillness from my hoard.
I would have chosen a few more familiars
were it my role to select the prizes this year;
punnets of berries from my garden,
oranges and grapefruits, things to simply start the day,
apples too, of course, a lemon and lime for garnish,
but I am the recipient, not the donor,
I will be gracious, no point getting the pip
when I have the pith.
Previously published in The Learned Goose by Jo Brandon (Valley Press, 2015)
Moules en Provence
I can’t explain it all in French, but I
can show you, just as the old man
at the table next to us did that day.
How to take the first long shell
and use it like a pair of tongs,
scooping each mouthful out
and bathing them in cream and wine.
We were unprepared. For eating
seafood in the proper way, for the
heatwave which called for swimsuits
when all we had was jeans.
We marvelled as we drove past
actual olive trees and drank perfect
co-op wine at four euros a bottle.
If I could remember the name
of that restaurant, I would send you there
and show you that not everyone
will be bored and roll their eyes
at green young travellers, that some
will understand that this is just
the beginning of something.
Before the First Bite
From beneath grey tarpaulin
perched on upturned crates
we push back our hoods
and inspect the fruit
both breathless. I was certain
we were lost forever, enchanted by
endless rows of jewelled giants until
we stumble upon the treacherous
ladders of our mothers. Harvest for them
is serious work; reaching precariously
stretching income. Neither can pick
the greater nuisance – us or the weather
The rustles, creaks and squeaks of our
waterproofs chatter sporadically
with the torrent as our tiny fingers chase
rain futilely from blushing contours
writhing at the cold trickles worming across
skin, growing branch-like tributaries under
gathered cuffs. Nowhere sees escape from
We raise apples to wide mouths.
No need, these days,
when freezers heave
with tubs of glassy fruits
but something primal still propels us
down barbarous country lanes
basket in hand.
Discarding gloves, we offer blood
sacrifice in exchange for this
rich blistered berried abundance.,
Mouths seeping juice, baskets filled
to the brim, we bring them home
to be boiled, pulped, preserved
for colder days
when we will unfrock
each pot of its lacy frill
and release the genie of summer.
Taste of Childhood
My tongue never forgot the taste of childhood –
the piquancy of pineapple, subtle flavours of jackfruit,
burst of honey in sugar palm, date, lychee and starfruit,
tangy zest of tamarind, sweet aftertaste of sour amla,
bitter neem and karela, the astringent bite of jamun –
the tree-climbing, limb-bruising days of magic,
plucking guava, papaya, sapetta, chasing butterflies
in the sprawl of grandfather’s grove that hugged the river
bustling with wild life and islands quivering
with its siege of herons practising their moves
while we spent orgasmic afternoons sucking
mangoes, munching raisins, almonds and cashews,
waiting for a flash of kingfisher’s indigo blue,
sipping nectar, sugarcane juice spiced with ginger –
when the world in your reach was for your pleasure,
and ghar, not bricks and mortar but a state of belonging,
Vilayat, the vast unknown out there, beckoning –
you a sapling born to stay put in the shade
of ancient banyan trees, not travel hopefully.
Who would’ve thought the sparkling laughter
of pomegranates would reduce you to tears,
and the ceremony of cracking open the hard exterior
carry you home to the tenderness of kernel in the belly
of coconuts, the soft, scented pulp of ripe wood-apples,
the tree born from the sweat of a goddess,
its sacred leaves offered in worship, transport you
to the inner sanctum of temples?
Like oranges, apples, bananas and grapes you make
a home of the world, holding your worlds together –
the place of your birth where all your efforts to escape
landed you in a place where all your attempts to belong
always point to a world elsewhere, leaving
you in-between, in the not-this-not-that state of being,
double helix of past and future wrapped round each other,
an afterwardness, dancing to the music of the present.
This persistence of memory is no ordinary thing –
a lifeline like mother’s milk, la dolce vita homecoming.
I hold the weight of light upon my palms:
Sprays and strands of wine-dark pearls strung
Perfectly from alchemy of rain & sun,
The pulse of summer’s hot & running blood
Shining, clotting on my fingers.
The heat of August sweetens, stains my hands
With fragrant orbs: purple, jewel-like (however small).
For now, I am summer’s queen again,
High on the handle-bar, riding aloft
Between rows & ripened rows of blackcurrants
On my father’s rotovator: around me the whiff
Of petrol & oil, the comfortable putt-putt
Of the churning motor as it chugs & chews
Through weeds & trampled ground.
With grubby hands I grab for currants,
Snatch at the light between the leaves.
Both escape my clutching fingers.
The dapple & ripple of green-starred growth
Flickers, skitters between them with nothing left
But the crimson smear of juice upon my skin:
The dazzling, fizzing, dizzy taste of fresh blackcurrants.
LEBANESE FOOD CENTRE, ACTON, NOVEMBER
Persimmons peaches oranges
defy the rain.
chips and kebabs
tabouleh and Coca Cola ™
the fiery unfamiliar script
small armies of tins
press against each other
pickles and preserves
Nescafé® and halva.
sheathed in ground lamb
The brass trough
the red-hot charcoal.
He wraps the salad
tight in the thin bread
anoints with the lemon
tahini olive oil mix
cuts in two.
Swarthy silent men
draw their over-patterned knitwear
closer to their bodies.