PSS Lelia

The detail is just so. The scale OT. The sea
parts, pitches, rages. On another canvas it might
be mountains peaked with snow. Not now.
The ship, head down, is caught between
newsprint and imagination. Smoke streams
horizontal, assumes paddles flailing, driving
the vessel on and down. Steam shrieks believably
from the whistle at a funnel. The sky, much loved
friend of the romantic artist, pretends to be
the hustling ogre of the piece, while the noiseless
gale goes about its work, invisibly.

It’s a scene of deaths, engraved.
The steamer will take her share, and the
Lifeboat, with oars in disarray and ten
men visible, is posed to overturn, held on
this course by the treachery of a safety line.
And there, just parting from the grasping clouds,
is land. Almost unseen, beyond reach, North Wales.

Not quite like that. 1865 – our steamer
is Bahamas bound. A ruse – she’s really heading
for The South. She’s Lelia, new-built
in Toxteth, of revolutionary steel, and lighter
than an ironclad. We may envisage,
packed like ninepins in her holds, bullets,
rifles, bayonets.  Why? Plantation cotton lines
the pockets of the rich whose kingdoms
line the parks and boulevards of Merseyside.

Against the westerly she sails, and tempests
tear her anchors loose, smashing through
the decks. Helpless, and in the Mersey Bay,
she sinks. Liverpool’s Lifeboat arrives
too late. On both, most drown.
The Confederacy also fails. Everything is
unconnected and not. Fate makes
its accidental judgement and is partial.
Apparently, and in the run of luck, we win.

Nothing is forever. Lost in 50 feet
The inevitable occurs. She’s found. The Great
Orme, Llandudno’s persistent charm, stands
guard a century and more, then divers bring
her bell to land. Last heard above the storm,
its silence now is almost testament enough.
Technology is brought to life, her wreck
is scanned, and here she is in shades.
Poor doomed Lelia – boilers, a paddle,
ribs broken, the outline of her hull – remains.

Heritage time – she is declared,  protected.
Language musters at the rail, salutes
a role in civil war, in slavery and trade,
we knew, and did not know, we had.
Scattered in the silt and slime, or lost,
the tangled lines of pride and profit,
the missing voices of the guns,
the muted links in chains of hope and freedom.











The train pulls out of Vichy. All aboard,
we occupy our seats or spaces. A couple,
young and pretty, slide behind a table
A child, already there, shrinks into its corner.
The mother nods. There’s noiseless gratitude.
Others confer with mobiles silently, or mask
their faces with a stare.  Sun lifts above
the bands of gouache in the window.

A diesel underneath maintains its harmonies.
Steel hums, frames rattle like a kettle drum.
A florist‘s cemetery, squared with marble,
assembles, provides a coda, leaves us
all behind. Then Clermont appears, and movement
ends – we drain into the subway, applaud
the signs that show us where or what
we want to be. Doors close, are gone.

Trains do this everywhere, and ever since.
Whether Adlestrop or Hull on Humber,
they mark the journeys and the places –
humdrum and regular as clocks they
glide between platforms, empty, filled,
slip behind back yards and gardens,
outsmart castles and cathedrals – invisible
as cats, defying privacy and graces.
They are going places. With us, or without.

At other 7.18s the scene repeats,
forever, though we are no longer there.
The life that’s seen, that’s unobserved,
builds up its pixels in the unknown space
we, darkened, share. Rites, passageways,
classes, missed or made connections,
all are there. As wheels turn, tracks
open into journeys. Arrivals into ends.

The Summons

Bill summons me across the room.
The book is small, its leather dry and warm.
His finger finds the page – Psalm 23,
he says. King James’s own. We confirm
he’s First and Sixth, and note his metric
journey through the valley of the shades.
Here’s the man who’s credited with the
Union of the Crowns, brushing up
his lonely Greek, and hunting for
the rhymes, while trembling clerics
debate the testament that comes
to bear his name. And both survive.

The library Bill curates is Scotland’s first
to place forbidden fruit, free, before the
people’s eyes. Walls shine chapel white –
enclosing paths which open minds,
and books, encaged within, await release.
Bill moves amongst the shelves. He puts
before me writers that I’ve never heard,
whose voices, never known, speak
from an age of innocence rebound.

So here is Johnson, prefacing his way
through all those Shakespeares, restoring
and creating bubbles for the bard.

And here’s the register of borrowers
from 1763.
A slanting hand, in ink now brown
as blood, describes the books and borrowers,
their dates and classes. Written down
to make a worthwhile PhD, this
treasure house reveals a solemn truth –
that ministers and teachers borrow books
and read, while weavers take one out,
but get back to making for their ends.

Innerpeffray Library
August 2019

Visiting With Jo

for George, Bill and Cherry

One hundred years – of springs, of winters,
harvests, treaties. Of senotaphs and hidden hopes.
A hundred years of Jo: Jo dead, Jo missing,
Jo as sacrifice, Jo growing in my head.
Abandoned, just another of the missing, dead.
Untalked of Essex boy, Lance Corporal, 31.

I’ve sought you out, done all I can –
looked for your name that never dies
and that I nearly couldn’t find – Bay 10,
among the thousands lost and Lutyened,
on tended Arras stone. White honey gold,
ranked, columned and arranged, Vince J.

I walk your field of battle – like you,
with pals. Sat nav to Neuville Vitasse,
its London Cemetery collecting a Division’s
early dead, falling from the order of advance,
stepping out from feeble lorries, creeping trains
on narrow gauge. Follow on along
the slope towards your goal. Beside the way,
an orchard whose apples gather underneath
the trees. Red-skinned, their disregarded flesh
gathers in the grass. A horse and rider
join the track – a child, she’s bare-backed
and gymkhana-bound where families laugh,
loud, as distant shells accompany
The Queen’s Own Rifles up the hill
to Telegraph Wood. A century has seen
these trees return, conceal the ground
where hidden guns and trenches kept
their promises. Around lie disregarded
bags and rubbish – a hundred years
of waiting and a tidying that never comes.
And here ahead the land goes on,
its furrowed crops wrenched out,
and newly drilled – lines waiting
for a fresh offensive in the spring.

And hereabouts you fell. Losing everything
for this Hill or another, or taken, taking nothing.
Maybe a careless shell gave you its funeral,
or death left you unrecognised, to take
your place in one more grave Known Only
Unto God. Another cemetery lies two fields
away. And another underneath the Péage
and the TGV. So here you must remain. Lost,
April 1917. Fourteen days in, a face unknown
amongst the faded grins and smiles of lads
who wait for orders, falling in.

We take our leave, and rain pours through
the afternoon. About the fields stand ready
men with rifles, and hi-viz, to shoot at
anything that moves. Hares, rabbits,
pigeons – rising, running from an enemy
they do not know. I leave you,  Jo,
with them, to take your chances once again.

October 2019
The Battle of Arras 1917



Beneath Australia

Our flight across the world goes well,
dismissed for nought beneath our Boeing’s paper skin –
we’ve reached our third and final continent.
A map displays the parts we’ve occupied
with printless feet, and now beneath, Australia.

Begins a traverse of a land, as swift
as any disregarded thought. Beneath Australia.
How much depends upon that comma – a nation
of 4 syllables, we are not promised underneath
your skin. Turbulence disturbs the flight.
Most, disregarding, sleep or tighten belts,
a city’s breath, a desert, burns dyspeptic – down.

Comes now the Tasman Sea, and on into the
fast advancing sun. Also below, drowned
unrecorded names, lost windborn
hopes of those unticketed, whose gods
had given them no leave to leave a trail
of empty breath through starlit parallels of air.

The courage of economy, of business class,
holds up – a matchless wealth controlling
destiny, the slow decay of ice and fire.