(from The Examined Life)


It’s like a Sunday outing to the Downs –

a batsman strolling out on Shamley Green

as if he thinks the summer has no end;

but then the road begins to twist like a gut

and the last bend flips us into autumn –

across a ridge the school stretches the sunset

like the Thin Red Line at Balaclava.

We drive in silence through the iron gates

and park, get out, as calm as undertakers.

I can’t believe the journey’s at an end

but just starting. A bell rings like fate.

We stand, talk like friends of friends

then Dad recites the pep talk he’s rehearsed;

my ears can hardly bear each kindly phrase,

my eyes are turning to my bedroom posters,

and I wonder what my mum is doing now –

shelling peas while watching Songs of Praise?

I get a hug from Dad and watch him go;

he drives off with a grin that’s not his own

and takes my childhood home.



The Master with the Sports Car

(from The Examined Life)

A swallow left behind still lit with summer

he nested in our wintry school

and warmed us with his tales of Rive Gauche glamour,

Sorbonne in ’68, Truffaut, Sartre;

his sideburns, Chelsea Boots and Romeo curls

curdled the smiles of all the war-time masters –

curriculum could never clip his wings

and we were glad he didn’t stay for long

afraid he’d lose the scent of foreign things

and turn into … a teacher after all.

Better to picture him in Kentish lanes

roof down, low slung, speeding to the Channel,

to see his sunglassed eyes and mirrored glance

at poplars streaming back through wine-dark France.


Senior Dormitory: Monday Morning

(from The Examined Life)

 It’s icy. I’m snug in bed aware that Jones

is crouching down and whispering in my ear

suspiciously benign: ‘You awake, James?

You’ll never guess – I’ve got you out of Latin,

I’ve settled it with Neggers, you’re in the clear.’

He knows how much I’m dying to believe him;

I dread that class and now he’s seized his chance:

‘Relax, I’ll run your bath and get hot towels  …’

I close my eyes. I’m gone. And he’s relentless:

‘But first I’ll bring the croissants, café au lait,

and then perhaps a fat hand-rolled Gauloise?’

I dream of sky-blue France, of St. Tropez

and float in heaven … till I hear the bell

and Jonesy’s chuckle fading into hell.





(from the Oratory of Light, after the Irish)


Lord, in dream I cross

The vast grey ocean

Rolling through waves and troughs

To sweetest Ireland.


And as my boat arrives

The seagulls scream

Their welcome in the skies,

Rejoicing that I’m home.


Gliding on Lough Foyle

With swans to serenade me

At last I find my soul

On Mount Binevenagh.


By the abbey of Durrow

The elms are whispering …

And in the startle of a flurry

A blackbird sings.


At dawn in Ross Grencha

I hear the stags; and cuckoos

At the tremble of summer

Blow echoes through the woods.


The Journey East

(Winter 2010)


The car revving up, the three of us

wiping mist away to find a whiter world.


Black-ice to Clonakilty –

cortege of cars behind a spectral hearse.


Strings of lights in Bandon, sapphire-cold,

and the stars are moving through the river.


On Cork’s Victorian viaduct, a train made of snow.

We steam below the River Lee.


Cork city crusts behind us;

three swans on Slatty Water; feathery ice.


The sun’s last x-ray radiates the trees.

Lights turn red in Castlemartyr.


Diesel-slush road. Across the Blackwater

Waterford has drifted white.


Inching mile by mile – through Iceland? Greenland?

Wexford, another country.


Dungarvan’s glittery square:

each shop an advent calendar window.


Beyond the Suir bridge the dark returns …

but angels are alighting on New Ross.


Rosslare night; chalet on a ghostly estate.

Sound of wind in chimney.


Dawn ferry, sudden vibrations –

propellers churn the sea to snow.


The swell-swing up and down and up –

O let the voyage finish now, and grant us solid earth.


From Pembroke Wales unfolds in white;

a postbox in a wall, red as a berry.


Below the Severn bridge –

water turned to bone!


The Somerset Levels, crisp and even;

the motorway accelerates the dark.


The night re-icing the Yeovil road –

not now, not now we’re nearly there.


Cattistock lumped with snow;

wood incense, curtains edged with gold.


A house on Duck Street:

an outdoor light – a star that’s stopped overhead.



Angels and Harvesters

(from Angels and Harvesters)


As thoughts arrive

From god knows where,

Or sun breaks through

A fraying cloud

Emboldening a patch

Of trees, or grass,

They just appeared

From nowhere

Among the harvesters

The field a world

Of cutting, gathering,

Cutting, gathering.

Their outlines sometimes

Flickering brighter,

They walked between

The bending figures


Pausing to watch,

Like ancestors

Almost remembering

The world they’d left,

Or foreigners

Amused to see

The same things done.

They moved around

Unseen by all –

Unless one glimpsed,

Perhaps, light thicken,

A glassy movement,

As air can wobble

On summer days.

And then they went

Walked into nothing

Just left the world

Without ceremony

Unless it was

The swish of scythes

The swish of scythes


The Monastic Star-timetable


‘On the holy night of Christmas

When you see the Dragon above the dormitory

And Orion poised above the chapel roof

Prepare yourself to sound the bell.’


Darkness freezes round me in the cloister.

The vellum words and stars inflict their patterns

Whispering like the ceaseless prayers we send to God.

No one must lie asleep who must protect the world.


‘On the festival of Saint Germanus

Look for the jewel of the Archer’s arrow

Hanging above the middle of the tower:

That is when to start the night-time hymns.’ 


The stars are our seasons, the keys of our prison:

Winter snowfall, glittery scatterings of spring rain

The globes of poppies in the harvest fields

The dying meteors of copper beech, oak and elder.


‘On the Lord’s circumcision                                          

When the bright star in the knee of Artophilax

Is level with the corner of the dormitory

It is time to bring the taper to the lamps.’              


The thrill of live flame! A writhing spirit,

The chapel like a soul skinned with gold,

This is the light I seek beyond the constellations;

O lux aeterna, burn off my crusted life!


‘On the feast of our beloved Saint Agnes

When you see the Virgin’s spears rising clear

Above the space between the sixth and seventh windows

Make ready for the sacred office.’


I dread nights of fog, mist, vapours, cloud

The clinging absence, the separation from God.

Lord, how long before a star expands inside me

Flooding my soul and flesh with gracious light?


‘On the feast day of Saint Clement

Orion will rise above the end of the refectory –

But wait until you see the sword and scrabbard

Before you wake the brethren.’


So many nights I’ve waited for eternity

Listening for music, looking for meaning,

But all I’ve felt is the dark between the stars,

My heart, beating like a bell, the phrases of mortality.




Cranborne Woods (17 May, 1994)

For my mother


We stopped the car, ducked below the fence

Felt time unravelling in a revelation

The seconds fall and scatter into thousands


Of tiny saints, a reborn multitude

Flowing past the trees, through pools of sun,

Each earthly form a spirit flame, pure blue.


They watched us drift among them, large as gods,

As if we’d come as part of their parousia

To stay with them forever in these woods.


As time grew darker we slipped away like ghosts

And slowly drove...towards your death next May

When once again I saw the risen host


Could watch you walking weightlessly among

The welcomers, the gently swaying throng.


Corn Circle

(from ‘The Frame of Furnace Light’, in The Monk’s Dream)

For my father


It was the third day after he was dead

His body yet to be consigned to fire

We were marooned in limbo, as becalmed


As the endless days of summer rolling by

Turning to ash the surface soils of Wiltshire

And shrinking the chalk streams of our valley.


That evening we stood on Pepperbox Hill

Gazing at fields embalmed in golden heat

And there, as if cut from the corn, a circle.


We walked down and picked our way through rows

Towards the solar disc burning in the wheat

And crossed the threshold of the temenos


Entering the benediction of the stasis

The heart of the sun, whirling, motionless.


A Vision of Comets

(from A Vision of Comets)


The flight was delayed.

Outside, the night sky was clear

And the land that had received the sun all day

Now slept in silence.

It could have been a Greek island

Or the new land of America.

He was returning home, for good, or for bad,

And the welter of accumulated memories

And friendships loomed up from the pit

Of his stomach in sudden queasy waves.

Time ticked on and passengers sat in rows

Under the flickerings of neon

Slowly numbing themselves to the worry

Of wondering when the flight would flash up.

Eventually, sunk in the midst of

Painful feelings of regret and loss

A sense of peace overtook him

An inner inexplicable assurance

That his journey home was right.

He felt suddenly at ease and, turning round,

Saw people rising as one from their seats           

Quickly assembling their luggage and moving

Towards the gate for their departure.

He went back against the flow to find his bags

And say goodbye to those who had been his intimates.

But as he made his way to where he’d been

He saw what seemed to be starry darkness –

As if the wall had melted away –

And people vanishing into the fringes of his eyes.


He somehow knew the young man who stood there.

It must have been outside for the darkness

Stretched around, sealing the horizons.

He approached the man, who pointed to the sky

And there, igniting the dark in golden sprays,

Eight glowing comets moved softly through the night

Slowly rising, turning, dipping, gliding

Like gilded dolphins hooping through a sea of blue.

Their tails, from which auras of sparkle

Would fizz and fade, were interwoven and moving

As if guided by an intelligence

As if the comets were on the kite strings controlled

By this young man as he moved his hands.

Then the comets began dissolving –

Yet their particles realigned and coalesced

Into luminous strokes with dots and squiggles –

And he realised they were giant words of Hebrew,

That they were telling him what his purpose was,

What his mission was on earth.



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