Each one has,
in perfect symmetry,
paired buttocks, smooth,
undimpled, gently curved.
So, gender notwithstanding,
there’s something here
for the most exacting
student of anatomy.

Now look further;
check the contours
of those cheeks: a face,
half turned away – the blush
of early passion jumped,
the flushed and downy. Or
the rubicund shine of passion
unconsumed in age.

And – the span of years aside –
if you listen through the breeze
and birdsong, you might hear
at the moment of the plum’s
release from bondage, the
pizzicato note. And you might see
the juice unloosed, the kiss off
and the fall from grace.

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First, try the wry smile over the rictus of despair.
And then hope for a heartbeat steady as a pocket-watch
against the busted ratchet spinning free.

Then run your eye along the familiar horizon: so many trees
in full leaf, binding the hills, holding up the sky. And reflect:
Here’s where I’m at again inside another cockeyed morning,

under another sun, the same as its siblings, before and to come,
watching those clouds, each one so true to itself until it isn’t.
Step back, step forward, step away. Everything’s a beginning.

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This morning a bone scan at Addenbrooke’s. Tonight the results of my biopsy. Tomorrow a repeated CT scan to check whether lymph activity is still in place. For me, the perfect storm. My vivid narrative ‘what-ifs’ – played back again and again during the times of the most intense health anxiety – always featured multiple investigations with lengthy periods of waiting before the omniscient (and thus omnipotent) doctors revealed their verdicts.

And here I am now, within that perfectly imagined narrative. And has it achieved its putative objective of acquainting me with every possible outcome, including the worst? No. In spite of the histology-based scenarios outlined by an oncologist I have no reason to  mistrust, the fear remains in place, undiluted, pure and potent. Why? For all my three years of counselling and constant self-interrogation, in terms of a delineated outline of what forces have shaped me and brought me to this point, I’m none the clearer.

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When we’re born we come into the world in anger and confusion: all this cruel light, this abrasive air, the tyranny of gravity, these harsh voices… And then, as we breathe deep and the world embraces us, we embrace the world.

From which point the heart becomes that eternal clock, the one whose muffled, unregarded tick never falters. And life lives us, drawing us on through pleasure and pain, rewarding the activated senses and healing the spirit and the flesh. We need do no more than eat, drink, sleep, love and be loved and, however disorientating the nighttime dreams, we wake into certainty and rise into light.

All of which  – within the constraints of occasional pauses for existential reflection – was my experience until 7 years ago when I got cancer. From the point of diagnosis I had to begin the entirely counter-intuitive process of recognising that within me now was the agency of my death. If simply ignored, at some point the cancer would grow to untenable size and it would metastasise, moving onto soft tissue and bones so as eventuality to stifle life functions, at which point I would die.

Fortunately progress towards its blind self-extinction inside the host that, if ignored, it would certainly kill has been slow. With the help of my oncologist, I have been able to monitor its movement and he has assured me that, with necessary management by him, I should be able to head towards my 80s in whatever strength and vigour I can maintain through self-care. By which time, he asserts with all the informed optimism of a medical man whose own health will be subject at that point to the depredations of ageing, dynamic strategies currently in preparation will then be readily available.

I’m close now to the beginning of the treatment processes necessary to keep the cancer under control. Nothing as invasive and peripherally destructive as chemotherapy, but still involving the introduction into my system of materials not natural to my metabolism. I shall have to exercise and I shall have to regulate further a diet that acknowledges cancer already so that my general health – whose overall robustness reflects both my parents’ genes – will be sustained.

None of which practical activity alarms me greatly. Bridges will be crossed on arrival and provided that I know they’re a firm and stable part of the route, I’ll negotiate them readily. What will take a great deal more courage, resolve and positivity is anxiety management.  Since 2008 I have been prone to chronic attacks of dread and the despair that results when all reason fails to dispel it. Both counselling (most of it useless, some of it invaluable) and self-analysis have begun to account historically for these terrifying and disabling torrents of emotional activity and the anxiety is now in the main spasmodic and transient. But there remains at its root a simple, undiluted fear of dying. Not of death as such, but of my atrophying, dwindling, withering towards extinction with those I love and who love me fading away around me. A common enough horror, of course, but  one whose detailed, narrative malignancy is unique to each individual.

So I’m about to move from that state of personal immortality – the quiet, unarticulated certainty that, for all the sometime terrors, life is living me and I need do no more than float within its current – to a state of staying alive as result of direct intervention. I must  indeed now ‘strive officiously to stay alive’. What I can’t know at this point is how that’s going to affect my existential consciousness – whether it will provoke in me a sense of massively increased fragility and vulnerability or whether it will promote instead an enhanced sense of the value-beyond-reckoning of the moment. I have a notion that although the assaults upon its integrity will many and constant, the latter sense is more likely to prevail.

Finally, I have to make it clear to the demons and saboteurs whose work confounds our best hopes and intentions (and a tenacious, bone-deep apparent belief in whose existence confounds my atheism!) that I am aware of the certainty of raid and ambush. That the interposition of nothing malign and morbid – heart attack, neurological decay, dementia – would surprise me on my way towards, into and (who knows?) through my 70s and 80s. Staying alive is an aspiration backed up by my oncologist’s knowledge of my now long histology; the precise vicissitudes of everything else are as unpredictable as the next moment. Or the next, or the next…

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TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT… When the muse goes west.

I wrote my first poem at the age of 15. It was a war poem depicting my experiences in the trenches during the first Battle of the Somme. Or, to be more accurate, distilling the experiences of a range of the First World War poets we were studying at the time and then filtering them onto the page via my attempts at jaded profundity within an ABAB rhyme scheme. Shortly after that I performed a similar service for the then very current Beat poets, distilling and then filtering onto the page their accounts of narcotics-fuelled road trips between New York City and San Francisco and the sexual marathons that took place both at either end and in transit. In these early poetic endeavours I was very fortunate to have the patient and forbearing support of my English teacher, the poet Brian Merrikin Hill. He would read these feverish creations carefully and manage through the elegantly tactful manipulation of his critiques to encourage me further whilst suggesting gently that I try to tackle themes a little closer to home.

There’s no doubt in my mind all these years on that without Brian’s gentle, tactful support at that time, my verse-making would have been limited to the hormone-driven years of adolescence. But beyond my own callow attempts at emulating the war poets and the Beats, Brian instilled in me and many of my contemporaries an enduring love of poetry and a recognition of its unique role in the deployment of language beyond all of its semantic and expressive limitations. Everything that I have written in the decades since my five years at Wennington School has sprung from an active taproot running back to that time.

Deriving from that period too is a sense of identity. In an unfussy, unpretentious way, Brian established the status of ‘poet’ as being as legitimate and substantive a self-ascribed status within the arts as ‘painter’ or ‘musician’ or ‘dancer’. For all that those nomenclatures carry with them a set of procedures and disciplines linked with specifically applied skills – the wielding of a paintbrush, the plying of a bow, the bending of the body around the dictates of a musical soundtrack – the fact that all that the poet wielded, plied or bent were the words that are accessible to all of us in no way limited or constrained the poet’s creative role and its potential achievements.

I have always seen these two acquisitions as gifts and I’ve cherished them as such. Their value to me and the particular resonance of that time and place were enhanced greatly in 1986 when I paid a visit to Brian Hill in his little bungalow on the Wennington School estate. Sadly, the school had closed 11 years earlier, but Brian and his family had security of tenure on the house. Before I called round I wandered through the two or three acres of mixed woodland contained within the school grounds and re-visited the three-story sandstone mansion that had housed the main part of the school. And I was, of course, subject to the nostalgia attendant on all such re-visitings. All the agonies of the teenage years notwithstanding, I had enjoyed my five years there and was conscious even as I rejected authority and embraced modish and pretentious rebellion that I was absorbing influences and energies that I would carry forward with me. Brian and I talked subsequently of those years and, generous again, he offered to read anything that might be upcoming in the poetry line.

That visit had the immediate and dynamic effect of coupling the continuing drive to write, manifest up to that point in a largely random and unfocussed form and style, with a new, refined sense of the coalescence of past and present; of the seamlessness of the junction between early emotional experience and the more evolved self. It’s from 1986 that I date the writing of the poetry that has, for me, approached most closely in the product the fulfilment of the process undertaken. And I perceive all of the work that has emerged between that time and up to 2015 as having, for all of its thematic or stylistic disparity, an underlying continuity of intention and purpose.

But it was in 2015 that I stopped writing poetry. I’d had fallow periods within the nearly 30 years between those two key dates. But during them I retained a constant sense of a conduit to the place of creativity remaining open. It was always more a case of the need to draw breath, to recharge the batteries that powered the familiar procedures that would draw a poem up from inchoate, pre-verbal form into language. And always that charge did build up and I each time resumed the process.

But somehow I knew from the start of this particular cessation of activity that it was qualitatively different. That conduit was closed; no current fed the batteries; not a phrase or a word floated into being. The silence was total and it consumed all the familiar territories within which a poem would grow from a nascent whisper to its final crafted form. And so it is now: I can read and recognise and appreciate, but I can’t write. I feel the loss more keenly than I can say. It’s like the dysphonia that robs the singer of the power to sing: I feel all the need, the urgency, to transform the winds and currents that still arise regularly into the form that once defined my creativity, but I can’t utter a note. I’ve tried all manner of strategies, either to re-open that conduit or to find a new route down to the old, familiar place, but I’m denied access.

Two activities help to dull the edge of the feeling of abandonment – teaching and music. The former absorbs time, provides a sense of purpose and allows for a level of generative activity. The latter caters – unstintingly so far, thank God – for the other area of creative activity that has sustained me through the years. But neither of them compensates for the withdrawal of the exclusively personal, self-contained creativity that’s afforded by poetry. Maybe it will return as unaccountably as it departed. But until that event (and how I have tried to avoid the upcoming loaded word with its overtones of circumstantial melodrama!) I have to sustain what amounts to a feeling of bereavement whereby my sense of self is irremediably damaged. Life goes on; laughter prevails; I get up in the morning and go to work with a will. But poetry – the writing of it, the sharing of it with fellow poets, the reading of it out loud – is conspicuous by its entire absence and I wish daily that this were not the case.

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Updates to Dick Jones, the Basement Tapes are suspended until I can access the files currently trapped within my old, now buggered iMac. Back soon…

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The relentless pursuit of musical immortality through the ’70s and ’80s continues shortly…

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