Piece in Ekphrastic Review

Thanks to the editors at Ekphrastic for finding room for this horse piece. The subject is one I researched for my last novel, so I’m pleased it rang true. You can read all the chosen work here.


At first, they had a Mistress of the Animals, those Black Sea peoples, the plains and horse peoples of Asia Minor. They passed on their heritage from mother to daughter and they brought husbands into the maternal home. The Mistresses watched over their charges, offered grain and wine not blood, made whole, nurtured. The Mistress of the Animals was flanked by lionesses. Nurturing huntresses.

Did the horses notice the tipping of the world when the Mistress was replaced by a Master, when the lioness guardians grew wings, talons and cruel beaks? Did they feel a change in the hands that held the reins? The plains were as wide, winters as hard, but the hands, were they as gentle?

The winds that swept those antique plains swept away the tenderness. We reap the whirlwind now; horses bear heavier burdens and cruel bits. They race and jump and dance, carry children in endless circles. They obey, their eyes on the whip, noses sniffing our recycled air. There are no horse dreams in this brave new world.

Poets on the shores of the world’s fringe wrote in the sands of the foaming shallows, in the stars that march across dark hills, of how the world has changed. Utterly. We snatch at the whirling debris, listen for hoofbeats.

Visions: fiction in Ekphrastic Review

I’m pleased to have another short piece of fiction in the Ekphrastic Review.
You can read all of the poems and short stories here.


The abbess dipped her brush in the crimson and carefully dabbed in an eye. The monster winked at her. She filled in the other eye. Black pupils bored into hers, and she turned away for a moment to clear the vision. She had been gifted with visions since she was a small child and they called her Hildegard. The name had faded, but she had the visions still.

Her fingers itched to continue. Paint us. Give us life. There was more crimson needed for the demon’s tongue. The abbess added three tiny brush strokes. She had been worried that the visions were sinful, but the archbishop had encouraged her to set them down in her books. Not sinful then. But disturbing. Distressing sometimes.

She changed brushes. Ochre. The prince’s breeches. The monster’s head was between the prince’s legs. Why did he have a demon in the place of his manly parts? She sighed. An allegory possibly. Men’s urges. Though the times were reasonably calm, even if the English were still fighting one another. They had no king, hadn’t had one for as long as she could remember. And the Pope was calling for another crusade.

The abbess looked at the red-eyed monster, black, hair like serpents. Evil, but not a Saracen, she decided. They worshiped one god, not like the Heathens. They were simply fighters. It was their land after all. The men fought and the women prayed. It was the same the world over.
She thought for a moment about the Saracen women, praying, cloistered and veiled just as she was. But in their houses, fountains played in colonnaded courtyards, and birds sang in cool shaded gardens. Their husbands and fathers watched the stars and made maps of the heavens. Did their women watch too and wonder with them? She would have done, if she had been able. She hoped her Saracen-sisters did.

She had never known her own sisters. Hildegard had been given into God’s service when she was too young to remember, and her occupations had always been those of God’s handmaiden. She had been observed night and day. Protected from evil.

Green this time. The Serpent with a woman’s face. The Serpent always had a woman’s face. It was God’s will. She paused, the brush poised above the tiny puddle of verdigris, thinking of a clear desert night, a deep black sky alive with stars, a jackal howling.

In a deft movement, the hovering brush dipped instead into the oak gall ink, and the abbess gave the Serpent a neat black beard.

The Oracle

I wrote something (everyone’s asleep after lunch), and it’s not a poem. An Oracle story. Fiction blurring into fact.

The Oracle

She stands in the cave mouth, gazing down at the sea, blue, glittering. On the sea is a white-sailed boat. In the boat is a man, black-bearded, with a request. She is a mouth nothing more to the man, who is nothing more than a black beard to her. The cave yawns; the white sail approaches.
He ties up the boat, reaches inside for two white doves. Their wings beat feebly. She never asks for this, but they do it anyway. Nothing for nothing. She would have them let the birds fly, but they only understand death. What price would they have paid if there was no shedding of white-feathered blood?
She sings a wordless song to calm the frightened birds. She can do no more. Between hers, and the world of men is an ocean, a night sky, a towering wall.
The blood flows, and black-beard is satisfied. He asks his question and she replies. It is a riddle. She has a limitless store. He will work it out to his own satisfaction. Only she knows it means nothing.
He leaves, black-bearded, white-sailed, confident. But aren’t they all? She wonders at the lives they lead, black-beard’s mother, his wife, sisters, his daughters. She wonders if he ever dreams of the volcano simmering beneath his confident tread, how his mother, wife, sisters and daughters hold it on a leash. For now.
If he did, he would never ask her to explain the meaning of such a dream. He would have forgotten it before morning, a wisp of cloud mist, a foolish fancy, as irrelevant as the cry of a child in the night.
She smiles to herself, a wry smile. If only he understood that there is nothing more relevant than the cry of a child in the night, the beating wings of things that do not want to die, the strong hand of a loving woman, perhaps the volcano would not have to be unleashed.

World in a shell

For the dverse prosery prompt, to fit the line from Oliver Wendell Holmes: Through the deep caves of thought, I hear a voice that sings into a 144-word piece of prose.

World in a shell

I hold the shell to my ear and listen to the rise and fall of the ocean. Where are they born, these echoes that roll through the deep? Caves of thought? I hear a voice that sings with the voice of the whales, and the song is older than mankind, old as the ocean and those who first learned the currents and the tides.
The song tells of the making of the world from air and water and woven strands of kelp, the birth of mountains and rivers that run always back to their sea-home. Of trees that mimic coral forests where birds dart like feathered fish.
The shell spirals in and out, chambered like a heart, all the pearly hues of a dawn sky and it sings the ages of the earth until the silence after the final echo, the age of Man.

Spoiled fruit

For dverse, the line of poetry to use in the piece of prose (144 words) is from Michael Donaghy’s ‘Liverpool’

“she’d had it sliced away leaving a scar”

Spoiled fruit

The cherry tree grew in the middle of the tiny kind of garden that makes proper trees look like caged bears. Her mother planted it for the blossom and let it grow tall and broad for the fruit. When she was a child she had climbed into the lower branches to pick the under-ripe fruit, and later, when she inherited the house, learned to love the flocks of blackbird that ate the cherries as soon as they ripened.
Her neighbour complained that the branches overhung his lawn, the fruit dropped, the birds made a mess. When she closed her ears, he took a chainsaw to the main branch, tearing a hole in her childhood memories, the only children she’d had. It sliced away leaving a scar that wept amber tears until winter sealed the wound tight shut. The wound in her heart never healed.

What we are

Translator’s notes:
1.July 12th is the day Protestants in the North of Ireland celebrate the defeat of the Catholic ex-king of England James II at the Battle of the Boyne by his nephew and son-in-law (keeping it in the family), the Dutchman William of Orange. The Protestant William was backed (along with most of Europe) by the Pope (I kid you not), as one of the measures to keep the Catholic Louis XIV of France in his place. It incidentally secured the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, which nobody cared about one iota.
2.’Taig’ is an abusive name for Catholic.
3. For an idea of what the ‘celebrations’ look like, I suggest browsing the twitter thread #KKKulture.

What we are

It was July 12th and she sat in the shade of a lime tree in the insect-quiet of early afternoon, trying to find what they call inner quiet. She looked at her fingers spread in the dry grass, the mosquito bites on her arms, the sleeping dogs, the heat-shimmering blue of the sky and tried to be entirely in that place, in that moment.

July 12th and a long way away, a fat, laughing Belfast woman and a skinny Asian youth were singing ‘I’d rather be a Paki than a Taig’ for the cameras.

She was a long way from the place her parents called home, but it was July 12th, and the crackle of dry grass was the flames of the bonfires, the tree branches swayed beneath the weight of hanged effigies, and though she dived into an ocean of inner quiet, she would still be a Taig.

A river of images

Today, Top Tweet Tuesday is hosting a review fest for independent poetry reviews. For a while now, Amazon has refused to let me post reviews, insisting that I never bought the book, I don’t have an account, I don’t exist etc etc. It’s frustrating.

Anyway, TTT has nudged me to try a different approach. I have tried posting using my Amazon.fr account, the one I use for buying anti-flea pipettes and ink for the printer. It worked! I think. Still being processed, but this ***** review of Merril D. Smith’s poetry collection River Ghosts might actually appear on the Amzon.fr site soon.

A river of images

Merril Smith has been one of my favourite contemporary poets for a few years now, one of those poets who uses language to paint pictures. Her poems are to be read slowly, admired. They should be absorbed like a painting in a gallery. A quick glance then moving on isn’t enough.

So much of the poetry in this collection is about colour (especially blue), memory and the moving river of the turning world. So much of it has the feel of an inheritance, as if memories have shaped the words and transmitted emotional images of things the poet has never seen. Her tender stories about her mother’s forebears in eastern Europe are like Chagall paintings, mythical, dreamlike interpretations of life that is often hard and unforgiving.

The poem River Ghosts sets the tone of the collection, the gentle winding of a dream-river. Dreams and memories are at the core of each of these brightly-coloured poems, but some get under the skin. The poem Handprints, for example, with its images of light, the red handprint on a wall, an arcane symbol, the ancient light of stars, bouncing back and forth in repetition is more profound than simply beautiful. And my favourite of the many poems inspired by Smith’s late mother, Hearts, where the perennity of the ones we love is like a river, flowing from generation to generation.

These poems are profound but limpid, personal and universal. They are simple poems with many layers, like paint on a canvas, their message clear, lyrical and un-clever. To be treasured.

You can get a copy of River Ghosts from Amazon.co.uk or at Amazon.com


Redmond sees ghosts. On the kitchen table. What do you do with a dog that sees ghosts? I wondered if it was the melon, but the thought of what a head-sized melon on a table might signify is too Godfather-ish. Bix (who sees nothing) tries to comfort him, but he can’t. Redmond sees what Bix doesn’t, what we don’t. Who sees the truth?

In the penumbra of old walls,
the table where generations
of elbows have rested,
red tiles where boots have trod
and savates slip-slopped,
in the hot air,
thick with hay dust,
something stirs,
or shakes a fist.

Not a list, not a poem, just a long, protracted sigh.

My contribution to Day 21 of Paul Brookes’ 30DaysWild challenge.

I think we all know what we as individuals can do to help slow down climate change, famine, floods and mass migration for the poorest populations in the world. It’s simply that most of us won’t do it unless we’re forced.

I was going to post a very short, non-exhaustive list, but I won’t. We all know it by heart. Nor will I write a poem about saving nature, because poetry makes not one iota of difference.

There’s nothing that’s impossible or even difficult in being reasonable and humane. It’s not fascist or Medieval to stop wasting resources. It is simply the plain truth that our throw away clothes are produced in sweat shops often by children, that abattoirs are hell on earth, that those floating luxury palaces destroy everything they come in contact with.

And it’s depressing that we would rather believe in hoaxes, irrational conspiracies and whataboutery than scientific fact. In the end, it all comes down to whether or not we care

and whether we want
the books we will read to our grandchildren
to have elephants and badgers
on the same page as unicorns.