An ancient tub, long lost to shoaling grounds,
nestles in the ooze by a peeling barge,
ropes slack to the task of tethering them
to an indifferent jetty. Each turn
of the tide floats the possibility
of tugging at knots, splintering restraint,
waking the devil in the engine room
and sailing away, prow-high, sea-skimmed, poles
apart, adrift on oceans of old freedoms
far from this haven, this creek that curves
its protective arm across the marsh,
frames the watercolour idyll, clasps
the landscape to its breast, keeps it grounded,
ballast for the arc of painterly sky.
But they stay: live by the moon’s rules, await
the ebb, then nudge and nuzzle on the swell,
creaking joints clinker to clinker, dancing
on owl-blessed nights, cheek to salt-skinned cheek,
to the wind-whipped gamelan of windlass
and spinnaker tinkled by yachts and cruisers
at smarter addresses along the water;
soothe days in genuflection to the joys
of oystercatcher mornings, worshippers
in a church lined with eelgrass and samphire,
sprayed with incense of gull and bladderwrack,
pray for the succour of sinking slowly
into the mud’s embrace, going nowhere,
moored together until the final flood.
(published in Acumen, Issue 53, September 2005)
Sequined silk afterbirth of a slit mackerel sky
I was dumped in the sump of Effra and Walbrook,
Neckinger and Fleet, swilled by a brigantine wind
down a winding silver ribbon on a gust of gulls
past the spiked-head tower with a traitor’s gait
to the landing stones at Wapping where I cruised
with my lightermen, I carried catbone stew in a sulphur spew,
slops from the slaughterhouse, silver from the devil’s purse
to chiding house, counting house, warehouse, whorehouse,
round the bend to Limehouse
where I carried off the mudlarks with a trumpet blast of typhus,
swayed on a belly full of eels and porter
for some sport by the gibbet at the Town of Ramsgate,
sots to the laughterhouse for Captain Kidd’s gallows dance,
lapped the feet of idols from Mithras to Murdoch,
caught your tumbling failures tender in my wash, dumped them
deep and pearl-eyed past Gravesend,
shipped my iron reach to manacled shores,
sailed my feathered dark to fire the world’s wars.
Carry me back to my trade winds.
Set my flayed winds free to chafe the chains of my hulks.
Take the winding sheets from my cranes.
Light my furnaces again.
Feel my wet bonds of blood, weigh the corpus of my
undertow, hear the drowned rats moan,
‘You are the cat’s whiskers.’ I am.
Drink, drink to my tannery stink.
Fish, sling your hook! Bazalgette, go hang!
Now is the time to take history at the flood.
Carry me back to my lifeblood.
(published in South Bank Poetry issue 4, Summer 2009)
Warning: When I Am An Old Man I Shall Wear Walnut
lined with lilywhite silk for cool extravagance
and polished brass buttons that never show fingerprints,
and an earthen hat and boots that will never suit
and alabaster armour arranged fastidiously with a wink and a grin.
I shall whisper to my mole and nematode menagerie
of unimagined places over a wormwood or two on a warm evening.
I shall practise my horizontal gait, ungainly at first,
until I hit my stride and kick the lid with rage at the grass ceiling
stifling my ambition, keeping me from rising
to my proper place as a blue sky thinker.
When I am an old man I shall hide in my wooden nest down there
long before that old woman in purple
with the silly red hat and the brandy and the slippers in the rain
stops her bloody showing off
and joins me.
(with acknowledgments to Jenny Joseph)
(Runner-up in Torriano Poetry competition 2008)
Stephen Elves is a journalist who has worked on The Independent and The Times. Born in London he now lives in Faversham, Kent. He read Philosophy and English at Kent and Oxford. He completed an M Phil in Writing at Glamorgan in 2012. His poems and reviews have appeared in Magma, Acumen, Orbis, Envoi, South Bank Poetry and Connections and he was a runner-up in the Yorkshire poetry competition in 2010 and the Torriano in 2008.