Poetry

“Gentlemen, I have dreamed to-night; I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys: ascend to my chambers; search, seek, find out: I’ll warrant we’ll unkennel the fox.”

Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III

Fox Unkennelled is my first pamphlet.
Email me to buy or – better yet – see me at an event.

Below is a small selection of my poetry. Search [poetry] on my Blog page for more.

 

Cwmmy Crab

from For Rhino In A Shrinking World
Kasaba Bay; Bristol, c1972; Collective Noun: A Collateral Damage of Humanity

Outside the One-Stop

Tick-Boxing

The New Blue Kiosk

The Birdy Song

Hatred

SHORTER POEMS
Lines for Nigella; Old Etonian Recipe; Monica Lewinsky; French Polish; haiku

A Quickening (Essay)

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Cwmmy Crab

Written for Ledbury Poetry Festival Orchard project, led by Paul Henry.

i

A stitchwort shift, a bluebell shawl,
I’ll cast aside in dancing;
hart’s tongue moist, fox gloves tall,
blossom frail, confetti fall,
I’m eager for the asking.

For I can call the fat cuckoo
from Broomy Hill to Dol-y-Cannau;
smooth frogspawn for my lover’s pillow
down in Dinedor’s dells.

ii

Eels easy slip damp meadows soft;
barn owls ghost, unseen;
badgers dig for brooding wasps,
scatter paper, fluster moths,
to feast upon a queen.

For I can see fey gloworms beckon
along faint tracks from Leinthall Starkes,
sisters beyond coiled adders’ bracken
down in Llangarron’s valley.

iii

Haws and rosehips; rain-jewelled hedges;
sloes darken tangled thorns.
Breathe deep, tread light; flame leaves now pledge
renewal fed by little deaths,
a rich bed to keep you warm.

For I can hear the insects scurry,
as hedgehogs feast in Beggars Ash.
We’ll harvest truffles, juicy berries
down in Hoarwithy hollow.

iv

Burning apple wood, sweet-smoked bright,
you’ll naked wait my coming.
Beyond Imbolc flames, snow drift white,
beyond paw-tracked path, moon’s icy light,
I’ll rest my ceaseless roaming.

For I can waken dead that lie
beneath the crust of Sugwas and St Weonards;
whispers linger, deeds gone by
down in Kymin’s cwm.

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from For Rhino In A Shrinking World
ed
, Harry Owen, 2013

Kasaba Bay

Bats pour like furry water
from a crack beneath
our rondavel’s tin roof
as sunset eases sweltering heat.
Slip-streamed by stink of mosquito-
blood guano they fall and fly
in a whispering, leather-scuffed, silver river.

Colours evaporate;
shadows slink into listening.
Elephants step soft-footed centre stage,
picking high pods
from spine-guarded filigree acacias.
Pennant winged nightjars’ silhouettes
bob against indigo imagination
like Hammer Horror elastic vampires
archived in sepia.

First published in Ink, Sweat & Tears

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Bristol, c 1972.

There may have been one
at the zoo.
We scurried in pairs,
shoved, chattered like vervets
on our junior school day trip –
cagoules, satchels, sandwiches.
Mrs Cheeseman told us to keep together,
not get lost in the crowds.
Lions snored, ignoring us.
The tiger, prison-barred, bored,
glared at nothing.
Mrs Cheeseman said it might as well be stuffed,
visitors would see it better then.
We made notes, rustled ideas,
sketched animals in action.
I drew an elephant, standing;
then another, lying.
Mrs Cheeseman told me
not to waste paper.
So, now, looking
at that scrap book, I don’t know
if the rhino was there, undrawn,
or had already gone.

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Collective Noun: A Collateral Damage of humanity.

A mischief of rats.
A flange of baboons.
An obstinacy of buffalos.
A piteousness of doves.
A shrivel of critics.

Trivia lists – pub quiz questions –
exclude some species’ collective nouns:
pandas, kakapos, axolotls, baijis.
Other groups are now redundant –
bitterns besieged;
gorillas disbanded;
rhinos crashed.

An extinction of dodos, moas, aurochs, great auks, woolly mammoths…

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Outside The One Stop

A puddle’s sludge has settled
beneath its skin of oil.
Khaled proffers his Big Issues
to oblivious passers-by.
Our wettest winter’s clouds
reflect as livid bruises
in its diesel sheen.

When the next storm breaks
shoppers abandon pavements
for Costa’s welcome
or the Co-Op’s familiar aisles.
Khaled takes refuge
in the doorway
of a boarded-up bookshop.
Hail stones pock the puddle’s
gunmetal slurry.

First published in the Morning Star, 2014

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Shorter Poems

 

Lines For Nigella

Deification isn’t all
it’s cracked-up to be.

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Old Etonian Recipe

In an insulated atmosphere, sift
blue blood, old gold, new media, testosterone:
time-honoured recipe for today.
Do NOT stir.
Allow to rise and rise and rise and rise –
groundlings may lick-up trickle-down Mess.

First published in Ink, Sweat & Tears

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Monica Lewinsky

smoking
but not inhaling
that urge to fit in
we felt the same
I knew.

conjugate the verb: to suck
he sucks
(present absence)
I sucked
(past tense)
but I didn’t swallow
(excuses);
the voyeurs lapped it up.

First published in Ink, Sweat & Tears

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French Polish

A morsel of coke
between manicured fingers
nails polished
au naturel
for a botox generation
pink as a Botticelli bottom
with a bone white tip and moon

First published in Ink, Sweat & Tears

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Haiku

the poet centres
her universe within words
dinner burns again

 

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May 2013, Tick-Boxing

Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos published new poems every couple of days from April 1st to highlight this government’s cruelty (as outsourced via Atos) toward some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Two of my poems were published on May Day

My second poem on the site, Work Capability was entirely “found” – by running those two words through an anagram generator – then sifting the (thousands!) of results. (Not recommended as “good poetry” but interesting in this mechanised, non-human, spurious data context, I hope.)

The first poem, Tick Boxing, was also partly a found poem: the questions and boxes to tick were directly from one of the government’s assessment questionnaires. Reading through the dense pages of questions, the final (in my poem; I only took a small sample) regarding the capability of lifting “a large light object like an empty cardboard box” set the poem. The responses were from myself as poet and strayed into songs and infant school chant.

You can hear me reading/singing the poem (with apologies for the “singing”) here:

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The New Blue Kiosk

The kiosk door is closing.
“I need some freesias, please,”
I plead, wedging the crack
with my foot.

He shoves a plastic bag into my arms:
“Last of the day: free to a good home.”
The door slams.
Mental health issues, obviously:
young men don’t wear bow ties;
and he’s given me celery,
beyond its date.

At home, I snip the packet’s end
wallowing in disappointment:
the contents are furry
and smell like Grandad’s wind.
I leave it on the table
while I make a cuppa.

The fur moves:
tensing, bulging – splitting the packet.
Not a butterfly but an enormous elbow,
bicep, pecs and paw – no! Hand:
fur-backed, leather palmed –
a huge face: two eyes, deep-set yet gleaming;
beneath a brow, frowning
over a yawn of yellowed canine teeth than would
cow a lion.
As would his breath.

An entire gorilla – silverback,
not a comparatively petite female –
ecloses.
My Ikea table cracks, collapses;
he fills the kitchen;
the grill vibrates with his resonant
greeting grunts.

“Did you eat my celery?” I wonder.
He looks sheepish, stifling a burp.
Then, with a theatrical sleight of digits,
he sweeps a spray of freesias
from an alternative universe.


First published in FOCUS, The British Science Fiction Association’s Magazine For Writers, Winter 2012/13 No. 59

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April 2013, Essay: A Quickening

Last summer I was chatting about poetry and YA fiction (online – I have never been to Paris, alas) with Stephen Thompson. He mentioned he was planning a literary review magazine: would I care to review poetry? I said, quite honestly (though with, I admit, a pang at letting slip an opportunity), that I don’t feel remotely qualified, since my background is not literary and I don’t know enough to place poetry in context. This discussion included a brief autobiographical detour. ‘Fascinating,’ he said. ‘Please would you write about your journey to poetry?’ So I did and in April I found myself in rather awesome company in the first ever edition of The Colverstone Review.

My contribution took me a few weeks to write – or, rather, not to write as I mulled and baulked. I don’t like personal writing. Finally I decided the only way to do it was to sit down and splurge for a few hours. That worked. I then cut by about 50% as I edited over several drafts. Below is my submitted text; Stephen tweaked it for a final polish in the published copy.

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A Quickening

What is poetry?

As a child it never occurred to me that nursery rhymes, advertising jingles and pop lyrics were poetry. Poetry was the strange, grown-up, delicious word play my father recited –

Macavity’s a mystery cat – Macavity’s not there –
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack –
The mountain sheep were sweeter but the valley sheep were fatter –
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?

I was scared of poetry: fabulous scenes, rhyming stories, dancing words but no context, no before and after; snippets that didn’t satisfy. How could poetry fit with my childhood life above a shop in a small rural town? I preferred stories: novels I could sink into, lose myself in completely, stories that took me to other worlds. Poems were too fleeting, tantalizing, leaving a sense of something missing – an anxious feeling I knew all too well from the playground. Poems did not offer a refuge; they heightened awareness of things I’d rather forget. Sometimes I lay on the grassy bank of the buried air raid shelter willing something to sweep me away from the inevitability of school, bullying, Sunday school, boredom eating, and guilt.

My background might have appeared to be solidly middle class – my parents owned and ran a small business, a television and electrical shop with a repair workshop behind – but on closer inspection that middle class normality was shaky. Sometimes my father could be wearing nothing more than home-made swimming briefs as he repaired a TV in the garden. Sometimes he forgot to get dressed before going into the shop. Once, after loading a TV into a car with the shop lad, Bill, two women – strangers – walked past, goggling at a nearly naked man on the high street. Dad asked Bill, “Which way to the beach?” Bill, not missing a beat, replied, “Down there, turn right, half a mile.”

Yes, my father was eccentric. When I was a painfully shy teenager, he sometimes made me feel sick from embarrassment. Yet I was also proud of him. When racist vitriol was spouted in a council meeting about gypsies he stood up for them: “Jesus were an Arab, / Jesus were a Jew. / Thank God he weren’t a gypsy / or us wouldn’t know what to do.”

His mother, the eldest girl in a family of thirteen, had left school at twelve to go into service as a parlour maid. Looking after her younger siblings, coping with her father’s gambling, living in two rooms crammed with other children, she dreamed of escape.

Whether Dad was an accident or not, I don’t know; she’d been married for more than ten years when he arrived. Either way, Gran doted on him, supported him and encouraged his enthusiasms. He scraped in to grammar school, which was remarkable for someone who grew up in a house with no books, whose only reading matter was the occasional copy of The Sun. He was soon working in radio and hi-fi repairs, developing along the way a passionate interest in Quakerism, classical music and poetry. Anyone participating in those things is axiomatically middle class, right? He had his poetry printed into pamphlets to raise funds for charities, approaching complete strangers to persuade them to buy copies of his verse.

And what of my mother? Gentle, quiet, self-effacing and stoic, she encouraged quieter reading, was something to cling to in the face of Dad’s exuberance. She died when I was nineteen. I wish I’d known her as an adult, not when I was a self-absorbed, traumatic teenager.

Our shop was next door to a butchers, which was run by a big – in every way – family of stalwart young men who made dragging a dozen terrified, shrieking pigs from trailer to slaughterhouse look easy, if enticingly brutal. We local children would watch and marvel; a bullock rising from the floor, throat cut, staggering as blood gushed; a dead white pig scrubbed in a vast galvanized trough of steaming water to remove its bristles. Once a week the skin lorry collected reeking, stiff, fly-covered hides, trailing bloodied slime across the yard as they were dragged to the flatbed.

Most teenagers are miserable at some stage, perhaps; it’s part of the job description. I hated secondary school but, after being bullied in my first year, I perfected the art of fitting in, being invisible, impervious, swotty; I sought the perceived certainties of science. After school I escaped to read biology at Leicester University – Hall life, youth theatre (great for overcoming shyness), boys, study, labs, the most massive library imaginable. And my husband-to-be, Dave.

Dave’s mother adopted me warmly. When he went skiing she suggested that she and take a trip together. I assumed she meant London but she had tickets for a long weekend in Istanbul: ‘Prague’s a bit too expensive.’

She’d chucked in her social work career and gone back to college to learn how to make theatrical costumes – tutus, corsets, merkins and all manner of wonders. I modeled her first firebird ballet costume. My legs are too short – I look ridiculous in her photos. She once appeared on the Clothes Show mothering a sheepish Christian Lacroix. She made my wedding dress; my step mother made the cake; my father a speech with a poem about his “beautiful, dutiful daughter” who could do “whatever she oughter”.

Fast forward a decade or more: Dave has a Cambridge PhD and we’re in Silicon Valley, California. He’s programming mass spectrometers in Redwood City, I’m a psychiatry research assistant at Stanford. My unit is moving from a decaying portacabin behind Rodin’s Gates of Hell to a gleaming, soulless concrete block. I’ll miss our skunk, the family of raccoons that live under our floor, the bare-foot, cigar-smoking professor who is retiring.

I am pregnant. Morning sickness leaves me exhausted for a few weeks but then it lifts; I am luscious, ravenous and glowing until I start bleeding. For three months I lie still, willing my womb to behave, to hold and protect my firstborn. The doctor tells my mother-in-law that I have an irritable uterus. ‘Irritable?’ she says, ‘Bloody belligerent, more like.’ She’s visiting in between chemotherapy for breast cancer: she can only stay two weeks. Poor Dave. He should be with her and he can’t leave me. Poor her. She’s unable to fly out to help us.

In hospital, drugged so my eyesight tunnels making reading impossible: moments pass slowly. I listen to a lot of music. After a week, Dave decides we should celebrate with cake in my windowless, queen bee cell. Can pregnancy last another week? It does. On the wall is a round white plastic painter’s palette with various sizes of holes, as if for measuring spaghetti portions; each measures a stage of cervical dilation. I am on six centimetres for a month.

The baby’s a tiny, skinny scrap of barely-breathing fur-eared life. We nickname him Yoda as they whisk him down to the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit, covered in wires and tubes. I attempt to walk for the first time in three months and manage to make it to the ICU to see how he’s getting on. I pump breast milk for him, having been told that he needs colostrum to build his immune system. By the time he learns to suckle I am producing enough to feed a dozen babies. We all go home at last. Yoda’s going to be ok.

So is Dave’s mother. With her cancer in remission, she races to our rescue when we are mad enough to have a second go at parenthood and preterm labour strikes again. I avoid hospital internment but it’s a long four months of “rest” before our daughter arrives – full term. Somewhere in that four months I teach myself to crochet. And I write very bad, self-absorbed, depressing poetry, my first efforts since leaving school and the first I have ever written for myself. Later, I burn them. My daughter wears the crocheted dresses, sleeps under my hand-crafted cot blankets.

My mother-in-law’s cancer hadn’t really gone; it was hiding. Now it’s in her bones. Years ago, in Cambridge, we joked about buying a big house to share: her in the basement with her Guide Dogs For The Blind puppies-in-training; me and Dave in the main part with an entire cricket team of children.

It’s not going to happen like that. Childbirth isn’t my forte and my mother-in-law is actually dying. We make a traumatic hasty move from California to Worcestershire to care for her. The day we all move in she collapses. I have two jet-lagged children under the age of four, an alcoholic aunty and a terminally sick cancer patient in the house. We don’t have time to panic. We cope. Three months later Nana is dead. But at least she spent her final moments with us, not with strangers in a stark hospital ward.

There is a huge void in our lives, physically and emotionally. One eerily empty afternoon while my children are napping I sit at the computer and write. Nine months later I have a 120,000 word novel. It is rubbish. I begin another, discover a writers’ circle, am given homework. “Write a thousand word short story.” “Write a poem.” First attempts are appalling but I persevere. My second short story surprises me. I have that gut feeling it’s “got” something. It’s picked by Helen Cross and Sybil Ruth for Short Cuts.

Poems begin to wake me from dreams, come to me as I walk the dog, visit me in the shower. I join online critique groups and learn about form, history, how write to prompts, the importance of practice, etc. Phrases chase each other like fields full of excitable puppies, running, romping and rolling. Sometimes there’s just a paw print and it’s enough.

At first I battle my rational science-trained brain, then I realise it’s part of me, part of my poetry. Science and art are two ways in which we can make sense of life without resorting to superstitions. I am lucky to dip into both, to see – however dimly – two possibilities in my mind’s eye. Each has its own way of interpreting, its own way of thinking. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s just our education that separates them. Science needs creative brains. Flights of artistic fancy need foundations.

Poets celebrate our universe, even those that dwell on its darkest aspects. After a couple of visits to Ledbury Poetry Festival I find myself exploring the immediacy of readings and even performance. I like poetry’s subversiveness. As Basil Bunting says in What the Chairman Told Tom, poetry is best not mentioned in “normal” society:

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.
They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.

For years I avoided poetry because it was my father’s thing. It was only when I dared to try that I found my own voice. Perhaps not writing for so long makes me more aware of how lucky I am now. And I can be grateful for his grounding in Masefield, Belloc and others, perfect for parody –

I don’t remember a thing, Rebekah –

For me, now, poetry spotlights something always known but never fully recognised. It’s a re-awakening, a quickening. Poetry is a way of bearing witness, of sharing other people’s lives, of holding things to account. It’s a way of offering hope. Ask another poet and they’ll suggest something different. Ask me tomorrow and I may, too.

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2 November 2012: The Birdy Song

As a counterpoint to Hatred (below), The Birdy Song (aka Rebekah) is a topical parody written in December 2011 and intended for performance.

Watching clips from the Leveson Inquiry on the news I was struck firstly by James Murdoch’s total lack of knowledge or memory; he was either woefully incompetent or a liar (in which case he perjured himself). Either way, why had he been running a massive organization? In whose best interests was someone appointed as a director who was incompetent? Why have a managing Director if they do not know anything, or wilfully ignore damaging news?

Secondly, he’s a dead ringer – looks-wise! – for actor Russell Tovey, or vice versa.

Finally, something clicked when I felt a plaintive refrain, I don’t remember a thing, Rebekah, fitted rather well into the form of Hillaire Belloc’s Tarantella: “Do you remember an Inn,/ Miranda?/ Do you remember an Inn?/ And the tedding and the spreading/ Of the straw for a bedding,/ And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees, /And the wine that tasted of tar?/ And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers…”

In England, doing bird is slang for time in prison. Also birdy is slang for an informant. Finally, we have the appropriately naff Birdie Song, giving me a title for a poem taking the [*] out of someone who’d taken the [*] out of all of us selling us the News of the World and The Sun.

The Birdy Song
(With apologies to Hillaire Belloc – Tarantella)

I don’t remember a thing, Rebekah.
I don’t remember a thing.
And the sacking and the racking
of my brain over that hacking.
And the sleaze they squeeze
from their interviewees.
And the whine of the self-righteous Guardian.
And the cheers and the jeers of the blogging mutineers
who hadn’t got a clue –
and neither had you –
and the News of the World caving in.
And the one! two! three! –
hit the keys
for the rogue gone chancing
askancing –
we weren’t backing his financing –
accessing those voice mails on a whim –
‘private paedoes mustn’t win’:
that’s the spin.
And the tinkle of my millions coming in.
I don’t remember a thing, Rebekah.
I don’t remember a thing.

Never more, Rebekah.
Never more.
Dark Times.
Light on Sun’s crimes.
Listeners primed.
Off shore we’ll deplore media whores
in the pages of the one percent’s cause.
No sound
but the tweets
beneath our feet.
A film of me; Dad’s tea with Mrs T.
I’ll be gaily played by Russell Tovey –
as a puppy-like yuppy with less neurones than a guppy.
And, Rebekah, you’ll be played by Katherine Tate.
That’s your fate.
I don’t remember a thing, Rebekah.
I don’t remember a thing.

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Final irony to James Murdoch’s pitiful performance?
I can do my poem from memory.

First published on Snakeskin Poetry’s Blog, HERE.

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26 May 2012: Hatred

I love music. Music bypasses thought and goes straight for the heart (or, if you follow neuroscience, the brain’s limbic system). But I am not a musician – and I do like thinking – so poetry is the next best thing.

I write a lot of poetry. Sometimes it works, sometimes it takes a lot of editing, sometimes odd lines sit in a folder and may never make it into a finished poem. I tend to blog the more “performance” type poems – poems that are immediate, amusing (perhaps) or angry and unlikely to be published elsewhere.

I can’t take sides on rhyme and meter vs vers libre – I like both, and write both – or on “performance” vs “page” poetry – they overlap and there’s no reason not to appreciate the skills, dexterity and intensity in either.

I write as an outsider. When I was very small I thought my family was normal. By the time I was four or five, I’d realised it was eccentric. By the time I turned teenager I had learned the art of keeping quiet, becoming invisible. (Anyone who knows me now might find that hard to imagine.) I am still an outsider – a scientist writing poetry, working in the strange world of a charity shop.

My father wrote poetry. Writing was his thing. Eventually, in my thirties, I allowed myself to start writing fiction – and was hooked. Then a poem appeared one wet, autumnal afternoon. I typed it, stared at it, scratched my head a few times, shrugged and carried on with other things – novel sequel. Another poem arrived a few days later. I didn’t want to share it with real people so I posted it on BBC Get Writing (the night my husband was in hospital with a snapped Achilles tendon, late 2003). Someone flamed me. Others defended me, made helpful suggestions, debated punctuation, line breaks, metaphors. We’re still friends – some of us have even met in real places, some are too far away around the world.

Here’s the second poem.
It has since been used in an Amnesty fund-raising pamphlet.

Hatred

My neighbour hates me.
I see it in her eyes when she ignores me
hanging out laundry.
I hear it in her voice when she
is talking to her friends as I pass them.
Her hatred is in the air and in the water.
I live in hatred.
It makes me sick.

My neighbour hates me.
As her mother hated my mother;
our grandmothers were the same.
My mother said that we were once rich
we were once something around here.
Then they arrived and took everything.
Now we are nothing.
She said it made her sick.

My neighbour hates me.
My cousin says it is the same in the big city.
He came to visit, in his new clothes from far over the hills,
bringing presents, beer and Coca-Cola.
‘They squeeze us,’ he says, drinking his beer,
‘until we bleed into the cracks and disappear.’
‘We are sick of it.’

My neighbour hates me.
We lit torches before the dawn;
the glow of flames scorched the dark sky.
Her husband ran out, brandishing his knife;
we cut him down.
My cousin caught their daughter,
their beautiful clean-limbed daughter,
and dragged her into the shadows
of blood and satisfaction.
I was sick.

My neighbour hates me.
She fled with her youngest children
into the forest, while we danced
around the flames of her house;
a pyre for her dreams.
Our valley was alight with anger:
for three days the flames spread,
fanned by hatred.
The city was the same;
blood stained the streets, corpses rotted.
Sickness was everywhere.

My neighbour hates me.
And I hate her.
When I walk to the town I fear the forest:
she is waiting there.
One day her children will return.
Hating.

 

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6 Responses to Poetry

  1. Ron says:

    This is f’ing brilliant.

  2. Enjoyed this, nice work :)

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