Category Archives: Poetry

Gate 67, SFO

SFO, February 2018.

Back to the place where I first set foot, 20 years ago,

And feeling as tired today as I was then, and bearing the weight of the years too.

But it’s always good to be back, even briefly, to a city of ghosts and memories.

These days it’s just for a short time, en route to somewhere else.

But wasn’t that the way it was then too?

San Francisco is always there, though. It’s where it began.


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‘My days of allnight parties are over’


Passport photo, 1998

As my 40th birthday approached this week, I found myself casting about for an insight or a lesson or a fear to impart, as I slipped into my fifth decade.

Nothing pretentious, or too light-hearted, or egotistical, of course. It wasn’t easy.

And then I came across a Roger McGough poem, which – as my days are, thankfully, “rarely unruly” – summed it up better than I could.


Not for Me a Youngman’s Death

Not for me a youngman’s death

Not a car crash, whiplash

John Doe, DOA at A&E kind of death.

Not a gun in hand, in a far off land

IED at the roadside death


Not a slow-fade, razor blade

bloodbath in the bath, death.

Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain

bullet in the brain, death


Not a horse-riding paragliding

mountain climbing fall, death.

Motorcycle into an old stone wall

you know the kind of death, death


My nights are rarely unruly. My days

of allnight parties are over, well and truly.

No mistresses no red sports cars

no shady deals no gangland bars

no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll

Time alone has taken its toll


Not for me a youngman’s death

Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall

knife in the chest, death.

Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe

“What a waste of a life” death.


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Of reeds and rhymes and religion

Saint Brigid of Kildare

Where I’m from, Spring began today. Where I live, it won’t start until March 20.

In the Celtic calendar, February 1 is known as ‘imbolc’. The midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it’s seen as the first day of the earth awakening from winter.

In Ireland it was, and is, Saint Brigid’s Day, a celebration of the pagan (later Christianized) St Brigid of Kildare, a patroness of medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and sacred wells.

The sacred bit is important. As a schoolkid in Ireland, we’d make St Brigid’s Crosses from reeds – a plentiful resource in my then-hometown of Athlone, on the banks of Ireland’s longest river. The crosses would be pinned up at home – a religious talisman of sorts, ahead of the spring season.

Today I’m a long way from the River Shannon, or from spring – that won’t happen until late March in Oregon.

But, after the dreary month of January, I’m trying to get in the spring mood. So I’m seeking out seasonal verse.

St Brigid was known as “the goddess who poets adored”, but I’m not aware of Philip Larkin’s thoughts about her. However I do know – and enjoy – his take on spring, which contains the wise call, despite some cynicism, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.


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7am, January 1

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Ainsworth Street, Portland

Walking on New Year’s morning

and what’s changed? The sun still rises,

The pavement is the same damp concrete,

And the 8 bus creeps across Ainsworth, as it always does.

A new year? Well, the dogs go on with their doggy ways,

A car engine starts, the leaves lie in same piles, and Portland wakes

Like Portland always wakes.

Renewal, rebirth, starting anew – I don’t feel much of all that

In this morning half hour.

The clocks have not been reset. Things tick on, good, bad, indifferent.

And what’s wrong with this?


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Songs about pints, pals, and public transport

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

It might sound a bit, er, poncey, to describe Guy Garvey as an heir to John Betjeman.

But, as the years pass, the more I listen to the Elbow front man’s songs, the more he strikes me a type of minor laureate, an increasingly-beloved back-of-the-commuter-carriage commentator on Modern Life.

Not that commuting is the only thing the two artists have in common (although, it must be said, some of their better known works concern travelling on the rails – see Elbow’s song ‘Kindling’, or Betjeman’s poem ‘Middlesex’). They’re both Englishmen whose lyrical writing highlights the everyday, sometimes banal yet occasionally sublime, aspects of Englishness.

John Betjeman, 1961

John Betjeman, 1961

And so Garvey will start a song by singing of “lippy kids on the corner again”, sounding like a middle aged grouch, only to shift the tune to a heartfelt cry for the loss of innocence: “Do they know those days are golden? Build a rocket boys!”

Betjeman, for his part, was adept at highlighting the ordinariness of life’s most profound moments:
“She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa…”

They have something else in common too. Just as I read Betjeman’s  ‘A Shropshire Lad‘ as a song, with it’s musical cadence and rhythmic lines, so many of Garvey’s lyrics read well as simple, heartfelt and heartworn, odes.

Not just to train stations, or home, or the north of England, but to a certain slightly awkward, and very male, mix of nostalgia, friendship, and affection.

Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey

Garvey and Co. showcased this at the Roseland Theater in Portland last weekend, with a stirring performance of ‘My Sad Captains’, a song about, having a few pints with the lads, and pushing the boat out a bit, like you used to do 20 years before.

Another sunrise with my sad captains
With who I choose to lose my mind
And if it’s all we only come this way but once
What a perfect waste of time…

There’s nothing rock and roll about the song, let alone sex or drugs – it’s really just a stirring musical account of a hangover. But in Garvey’s hands, even a hangover is a chink through which we can see some universal light.

For each and every train we miss
Oh my soul
A bitter little Eucharist
Oh my soul…

Trains, ales, and a few Northern lads having the craic? I’m sure Betjeman would approve.








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Power out, Stevenson WA

At 5am the Columbia River Gorge is mostly in darkness.

Returned to an earlier state.

But here and there the black is specked with lights

Driven by generators and engines, that assure us that we own the night

And that we control the darkness. That the gorge is ours.

But the fire-blackened hills and the tang in the morning air tell a different story,

Of how our control is an illusion,

And how we have been, and will be, here only a brief time,

And that our preoccupations don’t matter,

When cast against an enormous darkness.

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Finding Kavanagh in the canal bank rush

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

On a recent visit to Dublin I navigated through a Tuesday morning rush hour along Herbert Place, a few feet above the slow-moving waters of the Grand Canal.

As I did so, I wondered what the bard of Baggotonia, Patrick Kavanagh, would make of his old strolling ground.

The 50th anniversary of the poet’s death falls in November, and the Dublin that he left behind in 1967 is as dearly departed as the man himself.

The city of pubs and priests, holy hours and holy grail civil service jobs – the city Kavanagh knew, if not loved – no longer exists, thankfully. The 8am surge along Wilton Terrace moves with the same speed and attitude as that on lower Manhattan, or Canary Wharf.

Few wallow in the habitual or the banal in 2017, it seems. Why should they?

And what could a 20th century farmer poet from rural Co Monaghan have in common with today’s Baggotonians?

Canal bank walk, 2017

Canal bank walk, 2017

Little enough, I thought, until – days later – verses from one of Kavanagh’s later poems came to my mind.

‘Thank You, Thank You’ was written as an epilogue to a series of university lectures the poet delivered in the early 1960s. Part of the poem warns against nostalgia:

Don’t grieve like Marcus Aurelius
Who said that though he grew old and grey
The people of the Appian Way
Were always the same pleasant age
Twenty-four on average.

But, more to the point, Kavanagh’s poem celebrates the universal soul – whether it be in 1967 or 2017:

…what it teaches is just this
We are not alone in our loneliness,
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own
Problems that we could not solve
Lovers that we could not have
Pleasures that we missed by inches.

The words resonate across the span of a half century, from a poet seated by still canal waters to commuters whizzing by in 2017, yards from where he once rested. And whether we were there or are here, whether we were then or are now, we are not alone.



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Portland morning

I live with the small fear of the phone at 6am,
When something’s happened eight hours hence,
And has laid in wait through the night
To strike me at my bedside locker.

The clear, clinical bell often unnerves me,
I brace myself for news which doesn’t come –
Not today at least, but when?
Quickly, I resume my day.

But then it follows: the tired mix of relief and guilt,
The connected disconnect, and the small fear at the back of my mind,
That tells me ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’ –
The call of home.

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A wet morning at the Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden, June 2017

Portland Japanese Garden, June 2017

Gulping June

Rains, swollen

Mogami river

– Basho


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PJ Harvey at the Crystal Ballroom


Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.


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