Who Pays the Ferryman?






Don’t all good things appear in threes?
Lists, Christian deities, oils to ease
the rusted bolt? In Rome they broke the mould,
abandoning the triumvirs to confer state power
twice – on Caesar, then Octavian. Much good
it did them, for a while. Better those old Greeks
with three great rivers in Epirus: the Styx
whose waters plunged the gates of hell;
grim Kokytos, river of Lamentation;
and Pyriphlegithon, which flowed Flaming Fire.
They met at Acheron, and hereabouts you paid
the ferryman his fare, and crossed the lake to death.

No worries then. Today we come as Greeks
on holiday from all of that. In Parga, twelve
licensed cabs run pleasure seekers to their heavens.
filling beaches, bays, and boat decks, slowly turning
in the sun like peanuts roasting. We shelter vainly
from its basting fire in books, conduct an aimless
quest for memories with our mobile phones.
Or we can cruise the mythic waters, and bathe
like starfish in its azure deeps. Pleasure cruisers
nip like sharks about our heads. At night we cross
into a dazy sleep of comfort, sacrificed with cheeses,
meats and fishes, taken there by cocktails,
wines and brandy – forgetting Charon’s charges,
his calls upon our cares and bank accounts.


In a score of churchyards everywhere, graves
marked by families and friends recall gratitude
in death, or for them, being gone. What lies
beneath are bones, the ungovernable corruption
of the flesh, wood fragments, nails, a chemist’s
stain in the eyeless earth, perhaps a rag of cloth.

Around this church, as far as maybe seen,
these saddened stones stoop with their age,
their messages of hope a whisper from unseen,
their function as a hold upon the living
long erased by other scores of deaths.

Today, the stones have lined the consecrated
ground to form a wall that makes a garden
for the dead. A corner holds small squares,
tin vases, jarred flowers dead and dying,
a card or two in deepest sympathy,
for burials of ash, where modern times
have quickly merged their owner’s solid
flesh with smoke and air. A road runs
past, which, widened to allow the traffic
of Edwardians and their servants, took out
square yards of land and burials. So we may
safely park, secure now in the world to come.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Ketton


In Poland, refugees find welcome from their land,
their blackened homes are shells where lives once met
and grew together. Thousands have come.
This neighbour does not shell or bomb.
Their greeting Is an open door. Schools open
rooms and classes form, laughter heals the air.

In Britain, families stand by open doors as well.
They register their love and pledge their trust.
Ukrainians see hands that reach to touch
and gather in. But dodging missiles, rockets, are the
visas, declarations, and red tape designed to trap
the foreigner and his wily knives and i.e.ds.
Hundreds lose their way in online sink holes,
Or cannot find the documents they need.

In London, Government has sunk behind its
overweight P.M. His entourage of servants,
sycophants and hacks look forward to their
Covid fines, and breed inaction as the crowds
of victims clamour to come in. They seize
a yacht that Putin’s pal has hidden here,
amongst the other tainted wealth that spread
as party gifts, while families perish in their tents
and cellars, hungry, waiting, empty, cold.


The market fills the street between the trees –
on sale, a cornucopia of terror. Terroir, that is:
it is so easy for the ambling tourist to
mistake an i amongst the offered goods
that breathe their Frenchness in the summer air.

An active visit to the schoolrooms of the past.
Monsieur le professeur stands there, upon the board
in swirling chalks the words to learn, to speak
with accents, comme il faut. Vocabulaire.
And here they are, in deeply flavoured heaps,
on baskets, stalls and benches; beneath
canopies of cotton, rainbow plastics, drily
favoured leaves that shake on branches, labelled
from a classroom life everyday has made.
Pommes, artichaux, percil, les fashions a la mode.
I reach for euros, handle fruits, exchange.
Translate coins to action, and, so soon, to taste.

A woman shouting. It is an interruption, demonstration
or unwanted agit prop. Startled people
part as down our lines she goes, anger
from beyond her wall of words. I turn to face
a rustic chicken, thin, strangled in its
shrink-wrapped sac. And she returns, repeating
urgency that penetrates. Maxwell! Petit garcon
a tres ans! At last, I understand. Not anger,
desperation. We watching people look, avoid
each others’ eyes. A puzzled pity turns, shrugs
through our faces as she fades into the crowd,
and Maxwell calling. An awful thing, to lose
a child between the stalls, the busy roads,
the scruffy secret alleys of a stranger’s town.
There are no words, in any tongue, for that.

All to do is back to bags – filled vegetables,
meats and cheeses, and all their hidden names.
But suddenly she’s there – thin, calm and smiling,
chatting to some folk, and there, safe, is Maxwell –
revealed as blond, hair never cut, unknowing,
and English middle class. She had summoned up
her own school French to voice her rising panic,
and consuming fear. And I suppose that’s why we’ve come
abroad, to buy, and save for ours what’s dear.

Rabestans, August 2021

In Another Place

Facing America, or Newfoundland, stand Gormley’s men.
Gender defying, bronzed with the wisdom of rust,
they solemn see through any looker’s thought.

So let us go for: new life free of poverty;
the grasp of lords and land denied; the chance
to grow seed in soil swept of tyranny
and of native folk. Where potatoes do not rot;
where bellies fill with pride; where God can set
a chosen people in their simple prejudice. Due
west then, with all that sunset blah-di-blah.

And yet they pull the heart. There is no kneeling
to a pot of wine or bread; no feudal shackle wearing
ankle deep in blood. Just hope, caught in a tide.

On our coast, facing east, there are no journeys to unpack.
No one set sail from here. Here are receivers only.
Here other iron men came amongst the Celts and Romans,
the Saxons clinging to their Cuthbert and his bones,
with scriptural flourishes and calf-hide history of the world
made flesh. These brought their helmets and their ships to fear,
their Nordic gods, their hunger. The local craftsmen
with their gold and timid monks, no match for them.

Churches burned, open to the sun. Places surrendered
land and names. Danelaw cracked the skulls
of words, but made a grammar everyone could read.

An invader’s coast. Huge beaches dry for miles,
their hourglass sands, awaiting seas that always come.
The rocks reward the careless navigators, and their cargoes.
but mainly these are gentle shelves for longships,
or for barges packed with Wehrmacht, and salutes.

Or so we thought. That new hordes might come
inspired our fear so lately purged of baresark screams.
New legacies of concrete blocks were sown across the dunes,
and plans to stall the onrush of field grey drawn up.

They never came. We practice-bombed the scrapyard
trucks we’d lined along the sand. Blockhouses with their
glassless windows still watch out to judge the aim
of boys with bombs. They’ll get a listing, sometime,
along with abbeys, castles, and Martello towers.

Meanwhile, on this day, breeze takes on the empty
shore between the tides. At the water’s edge, waves
practice being tough and mighty, stands Gormleylike
a naked man, hands held out in wait. He faces out
the nibbling surf, stretches left and right, throws
care into the plucking, rasping sea. His clothing
piles beyond its grasp. What destinations, or what
threats await his nudity who knows. Does he hope
for gods, or men in ships? Dolphins pass, yards from
where he stands. Perhaps he would be of their number,
heading south. We set our phones to panoroma, take it in.